The fans of Soul Coughing are a devoted cult, and understandably so. The clever music of Mike Doughty and cohorts was witty and often insightful, occasionally poetic, at times inscrutable, but always fun. When Soul Coughing played live, they brought energy and charisma to that mix. Now it’s a new century, the band is no more and Mike Doughty has initiated a solo career, but since Doughty always was the personable creative center of things, fans can take heart. The soul behind Soul Coughing lives on.
This is never more apparent than in the way Doughty’s charms are captured in this limited edition live CD. Recorded at Minneapolis’s Woman’s Club Theatre last February, Smofe + Smang serves up a healthy sampling of the completely entertaining live experience that is troubadour Doughty. Performing only with an acoustic guitar, this is the apex of minimalism.
The CD opens with a verbose yet enthusiastic intro en Espanol from one Matthew Saldivar, a mere prelude to the diverse mix that follows. The only possible drawback to the proceedings might be the sort of limited rhythmic syncopation of Doughty’s stuttering guitar style. While Doughty is a great songwriter and poet to boot, his guitar serves as bare accompaniment rather than focal point. As such, many of the intros sound similar (a point acknowledged when Doughty chides the crowd’s breaking into applause before he even gets started singing a new one: “You do not know this fucking song”). This shouldn’t get in the way of your enjoyment of this ample collection (25 tracks that offer over 65-minutes worth of performance).
Doughty does perform a diverse collection of classic Soul Coughing tunes re-done as solo material. From their first album Ruby Vroom he offers “True Dreams of Wichita” and the lovely “Janine”; from Irresistible Bliss he gives us “Lazybones” and “Soft Serve”. From the popular El Oso Doughty re-interprets “Maybe I’ll Come Down”, “St. Louise Is Listening”, and a free-form version of “Circles” (incorporating music references from Paul Simon, Semisonic and Cornershop, amongst others). There’s also a wonderful cover of Drink Me’s “Train to Chicago”.
While many of the Soul Coughing selections are memorable classics of wordplay and angst, I think the musical highlights here are skewed toward the more recent solo material. Doughty gives us two from his solo album Skittish (“The Only Answer” and “Thank You Lord for Sending Me the F Train”) and also treats the crowd to a host of new material.
Doughty’s songs are a strange literate combination of complex feelings expressed as spare poetry. In “Sunkeneyed Girl” he talks about thoughts of love as an addiction: “Sunkeneyed girl in the sandwich shop / Ladle my soup from the kettle pot / So swooning my self with the smolder looks / Parsing that gaze for the right intentions / Sunkeneyed girl don’t let me go / You’re the whole world and you barely know so / You are the drinks I drink and keep drinking and fall down stumble / All of the things I think and keep thinking and wake up tremble / All these fears are bound to fall”. Doughty the performer eases back from the seriousness of this, explaining he hasn’t written a middle bridge, and instead will fill it with a riff from a .38 Special tune of the ‘80s. In the end, the song’s narrator negates his worth, confesses to the object of his affection that he isn’t worth a dime.
Another new one, entitled “Busting up a Starbux” is a musical wake-up call from the somnolent indifference of a new generation, complete with current cultural references: “Does the man who makes the shoes own you, clown? / You can’t even pry the nameplate off, now can you? / Fix it with your tiny fist there / James Van Der Beek and them sisters from Sister, Sister / The only one that’s ever felt this is you / The force that’s forcing you / To feel like busting up a Starbux”.
“Madeleine and Nine” is a beautiful tale of another would-be love, a man seeking to be a special one for a woman who keeps a bevy of others: “Slain by the words I lack / The world is bursting sappy music and with your face so sad I long to make you mine / Slave to the inside light / My world is burning on eternally / For the fire I lack / This flame is feeling fine”.
Existential loners inhabit the world of Doughty’s songs, singing of “the great stony lonesome I call home” (from the new “Grey Ghost”). Yet all this sadness is balanced by the hope and dreams of love. It’s probably a stance shared by Doughty himself, and one of the reasons he manages such wonderful rapport with his audience. He is as open and conversational as a close friend when performing and that’s the real treat of Smofe + Smang: Mike Doughty opening up with between song banter.
His repartee flows, a seamless mix of set material and impromptu improvisation with the audience. He is at ease throughout, self-deprecating, smart, informed and gracious. Whether confessing he’s a patsy for the man because he visits Starbucks every single day of his life, discussing how the show Cribs somehow has missed out on the genre of the one-bedroom apartment on the lower East side, referencing shows such as Road Rules and
, or suggesting the new alternative to “Freebird” as universal concert request, Doughty is warm, winning and comfortable.
Having overcome his drug addiction, one only wishes good things for Doughty from this point forward. He is a man of many talents, having written a book of poetry called Slanky, collaborated with other artists (ongoing), contributed music features to the New York Press, and allegedly is composing a movie soundtrack. If you haven’t yet experienced the winning Mike Doughty, you owe yourself the fun trip of Smofe + Smang: Live in Minneapolis(two of the many fake words he lists on his website, in case you wondered).
Mike Doughty remains an under-rated singer/songwriter/poet, but his self-effacing manner is refreshingly welcome in a time of otherwise celebrated boredom. No doubt the best way to experience Doughty’s performance is to see him live, but if you can’t get out, this wonderful CD does a great job of capturing that intimate magic for you.