Since disbanding his unclassifiable postbeat group Soul Coughing in 2000, Mike Doughty has calibrated his once-abstract ideal to accommodate a broader audience. He’s moved away from stream-of-consciousness emceeing to embrace the more conventional expectations of a singer-songwriter. That means Doughty’s songs are now frequently about concrete things, where in the past they’ve been hung around nothing more than rhythmic cadence or a conceptual absurdity. Doughty’s 2005 full-length debut, Haughty Melodic, proved that he hadn’t necessarily remade himself so much as he had softened the edges of his esoteric tack.
Doughty’s sophomore LP, Golden Delicious, goes heavy on the groove and the hook, but it may go a little too soft on the edges. Here, the most conspicuous side effect of Doughty’s solo compromise is the simplification of his refrains. His compulsion for repeated phrases, once the absurdist crux of Soul Coughing’s raison d’etre, has relapsed into a lazier indulgence in wordless scat: random abstracts like “You get the ankles and I’ll get the wrists” or “Move aside and let the man go through” have been replaced by “barumpa-tum-bum"s and “ding-da-da-ding"s, and no less than four songs use “nah-nah-nah"s in the service of their choruses. The extremely funky vamp “I Wrote a Song About Your Car” does boast a great lyrical compulsion (“Givin’ it up / Don’t mind givin’ it up / Don’t mind every last drop little bit”), but even that ultimately descends into another just another nonsensical chant for easy audience participation. Every time Golden Delicious goes mumbly, it risks pigeonholing itself as a gaggle of sounds with nothing particularly interesting to say.
Even that may be something of an unfair criticism, given that Golden Delicious is largely defined by its fun, celebratory vibe and not by its deft lyrical acrobatics. Doughty recorded the album with his touring band, which lends the songs a more organic and spontaneous feel than those on Haughty Melodic. Most welcome is keyboardist John Kirby, who doles out sweeping piano chords in “Fort Hood” and juicy electric punctuation in “27 Jennifers”, a blood-rushed re-recording of a song that originally appeared on Doughty’s 2003 EP, Rockity Roll. The upbeat atmosphere applies even to “Fort Hood”, the album’s most politically charged piece, as it pushes forward with festive redemption and a refrain swiped from Hair‘s “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)”. “You should be gettin’ stoned with a prom dress girl / You should still believe in an endless world / You should blast Young Jeezy with your friends in a parking lot”, Doughty sings in the song’s bridge, presumably to a US soldier fresh out of high school, yielding catharsis from the frustrated sentiment.
The second half of the record gets a little more introspective, especially on songs like the anguished “I Got the Drop on You” and “Wednesday (Contra La Puerta)”, a pretty one-chord boiler with softly tumbling drums. “Your sorrow is beautiful to me tonight / So cold and bright”, Doughty sings, in that unaffected diced-gravel voice of his, finding sharp expression in the darkness—something deserving of words and thoughts, and not mere fodder for nodding heads.