Every person, regardless of gender, has a musical G-spot. You know what I’m talking about—when the notes and lyrics of a piece of music come together with just the right chemistry. There’s a surge that runs through your body. Maybe your skin breaks out in goose bumps. Or an involuntary smile stretches across your face. Perhaps you even get a little misty-eyed. Sometimes it’s so intense that you can’t physically remain still. Or sometimes it’s a slow, warm high that carries you for hours. And if a particular artist has figured out a way to work that spot over and over again, then you’re going to keep listening until it ceases to get you off.
Mike Doughty is the favorite movie I can watch repeatedly—only the scenes change a little each time to keep me on my toes. Yes, he recycles his own riffs and vocal lines frequently, but he hits that spot for me. If it ain’t broke… know what I’m saying?
OK, so Mike Doughty isn’t likely to attract U2 numbers when it comes to fan devotion (although one can hope). Still, I’m not the only one who gets it. His debut Skittish has already sold more than 25,000 copies since Doughty started selling them exclusively at shows and online five years ago. He tours endlessly, and every night, fans pack the shows and scream out requests.
Perhaps it’s the way he can co-opt so many different musical styles and still sound unique, whether he’s blending hip-hop, jazz, rock and funk as the frontman for Soul Coughing or cutting super-cool dance tracks with BT. It all comes out Doughty in the end. He is the musical Everyman—no further removed from Q-Tip than he is from Dave Matthews. This is still true, even as he ventures out on his own as a singer-songwriter. That nasally wry vocal delivery hasn’t waned, and the guitar riffs haven’t diverged much from the bluesy funk of “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” from Soul Coughing’s debut Ruby Vroom. But as always, he’s still keeping us on our toes.
With the release of Skittish, packaged together with his 2003 EP Rockity Roll (with five bonus tracks tacked on), Doughty fans who have been continually moved by his music are now given the chance to connect with him on a deeper level. Skittish, actually recorded in 1996, is a particularly revealing look at the man most of us regarded as a scat-singing, prankster lyricist. The big beats and instrumental idiosyncrasies of Soul Coughing are missing from this release, but more importantly, gone too are most of Doughty’s eccentric wordplay.
His clever metaphors are still omnipresent, but here, they are infinitely easier to understand and thus strike a more significant chord. What we have here, simply, is a man and his acoustic guitar, singing about drug addiction, heartbreak, and the longing baggage that accompanies each. When he does delve into cryptic territory, our lack of understanding comes not from the words themselves but from the message, which was never meant for us. For instance, when he sings, “You were the only answer/My plans spun all around you/Five years in the wrong/I am assured my name to you is just another word”, you know there’s probably only one other person on the planet who truly understands the impact of those lines. For those who find this voyeurism uncomfortable, let me assure you that Doughty still sounds like Doughty, even when putting his spin on the southern spiritual (“Sweet Lord in Heaven”) and the blues (“Shunned + Falsified”).
And if you still insist that he stop with all the seriousness and return to singing about fat dudes and fake goatees, then check out the newer Rockity Roll. Tracks such as “Ways + Means”, “27 Jennifers”, and “Ossining” hearken back to the feel-good vibes of Soul Coughing’s “Circles”, thanks in large part to added lo-fi drum programming and effects. Rockity Roll not only confirms that Doughty’s quirky humor still remains intact, but it also shows us that no matter how good his songs are, they’re even better with expanded instrumentation. Even the bonus live rendition of “The Only Answer”, with added organ accompaniment, sounds more vibrant than the original version on Skittish.
Rockity Roll is not without its bittersweet moments, however. In fact, a line from “40 Grand in the Hole” pretty much sums up this two-disc set: “When will I love someone/ When will someone be mine/ 40 grand in the hole/ And I’m going to open it up and let my yearning shine.” For all the lonely fools out there, I say, “Amen, brother.”
// Notes from the Road
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