You don’t really know the band. You might think you do, but you don’t. In fact, chances are good you’ve not only never met them, you’ve never even set eyes on them.
The fact is, you only think you know Soul Coughing. It’s an easy mistake to make. Throughout the nineties, Soul Coughing made some of the most plainly accessible music to come out of your car stereo since . . . well, that’s a hard sentence to finish. Soul Coughing didn’t sound like anyone before them. The band featured an upright bass as a pop instrument. They popped and rattled you like no other funky acousto-troupe could. They were like a new and irreverent acquaintance, someone you were introduced to by someone else, someone who you wanted to know better but always thought there’d be more time.
Your time with Soul Coughing ran out in 2000, when the band split ways. They left three albums in their wake, each filled with the pop-tainted-jazz and beat inspired fuzz-poetry they first became known for in their native New York. Fronted by poet-cum-music-writer-cum-guitarist Mike Doughty (aka Doughty, aka M. Doughty), the band strove to capture the essence of jazz, folk, poetry, hip-hop, and whatever else seemed to make the band want to get up and jump at the time.
Their recently released compilation, Lust In Phaze: The Greatest Hits of Soul Coughing, shows a slice of the band’s progression from high-speed street poet jazz/pop masters to solid songwriters who made some of their best music while in the throes of hating each other. The album’s billed as a greatest hits piece, but it isn’t so much that as a collection the band chose to be the Polaroid that defines their life together. Because as a greatest hits compilation, it fails.
Of course, there’re the rarities (sort of): “Unmarked Helicopters”, a track culled from the ill-fated X-Files compilation Songs in the Key of X, is a synth-poppy departure from the band’s regular upright bass and drum driven sound. The introduction of the X-Files theme at the fade out will be jarring to even the most committed fan. “Buddha Rhubarb Butter”, a lost track from the Ruby Vroom days, is enjoyable, but leaves you no doubt why the nonsensical drum ditty was left off in the first place. And the Propellerheads’ remix of “Super Bon Bon” is needless fodder, a vagary of kitchen sink production that could just as well have been left out.
Anyone looking for a true ‘greatest hits’ album here, as I said before, will be disappointed. That’s an applaudable thing. Rather than throw tracks on an album in a spineless attempt to please fans, they carefully picked and chose tracks that would most accurately portray their artistic output as a whole. While the radio hits are here, including “Super Bon Bon”, “Soundtrack to Mary”, and “Circles”, fans will be surprised to learn that some key Soul Coughing songs have been left out. “Soft Serve”, from Irresistible Bliss comes to mind. So does “16 Horses”, from El Oso and the X-Files movie soundtrack.
Instead, such tracks as the annoying-but-God-it-gets-in-your-head “Bus to Beelzebub”, the beautifully incomprehensible “Paint”, and the aforementioned “Unmarked Helicopters” got added to the mix. The result is like viewing a roughly painted watercolor: the beauty lies in the jagged strokes.
The liner notes are worth the price of admission alone. Doughty systematically gives us a rundown of every song on the album, sharing insights, thoughts, and foibles about each track along the way. “Rolling”, for example, extols the virtues of Ecstasy, while “Bus to Beelzebub” is centered around a sample from a classic Warner Bros. tune. “True Dreams of Wichita” is a paean of in-jokes to a real ex-lover who ran away with a bandmate. “St. Louise is Listening” is full of shrouded references to silent movie star Louise Brooks, whom Doughty dubs his “patron saint”. And the girl’s voice who opens “Janine”? You’ll have to see that for yourself. Even if you’ve never heard the song, the explanation’s worth it.
Again, don’t expect a greatest hits package just because it says ‘greatest hits’ on the front. It’s just more unwieldy than, say, Soul Coughing’s Super Special Picks, or Soul Coughing: These Songs Define Us. While it’s a great introduction to the band from a newcomer’s standpoint, it doesn’t perform the function that a true greatest hits package does—that is, act as a hastily thrown together amalgam of band X’s radio singles. Instead, expect an album you can play through from beginning to end, one which can stand on it’s own—the way a “great” album should be.