Soul Coughing is rightly remembered as one of the more idiosyncratic and enduring bands of the ‘90s. They weren’t a household name but they were reasonably successful, producing three superb albums and a handful of singles before calling it a day at the dawn of the current decade. They were smart and subtle, but more than anything else they had a knack for loping rhythms and ingratiatingly quirky minor-key melodies that ensured them a place of note in the primary-color world of alternative pop. That they remain so doggedly resistant to categorization even after all this time is a testament to the fact that there has never really been another band quite like them.
This is not what you might call an actual live album, but more resembles what Pearl Jam has done with their never-ending series of “official bootleg” releases. Kufala, who proclaim themselves the “Leader in Authorized Bootlegs”, present the show in as close to a pristine coontext as possible, in its entirety but unadorned by liner notes or anything but a small photograph of the band onstage. It carries the odd associations of being both an official release (the WB logo is situated prominently on the back label) on a cozy, boutique scale (the packaging is really just a green sticker on a prefab brown cardboard sleeve). It’s an interesting, economical package that I would like to see applied to more bands. It doesn’t cost a lot to print CDs, and if a company like Kufala can make money doing it legitimately there are a number of bands who could profit from such an intimate, fan-oriented treatment.
My main concern when I listened to this live disc was the sound quality. It doesn’t sound as good as a professionally recorded live album, this is true, or even as clear as the pristine soundboard recordings used for the aforementioned Pearl Jam series. It even sounds s bit tinny and compressed, at least when heard on headphones or a car stereo. But listen to this disc on a muscular home system—or even better—in a sizeable public space, and the sound unpacks itself. It sounds a lot better the closer you can get to the actual volume of the show itself, with the distinctive elements becoming clear and the dynamics well-represented. It’s a neat trick, but it’s also sure to frustrate those who depend on private devices for their musical enjoyment.
The show itself is fabulous. Soul Coughing’s unique, jazz-inflected sound was built around their rhythm section, and as you might expect from this they are exceedingly tight in a live context. They were one of the few (and only) rock groups to really exploit the syncopative possibilities of drum & bass, and drummer Yuval Gabay makes the most of explosive tracks like “Rolling” and “Blame”. He’s got the presence and consistency of an expertly calibrated drum machine. More than anything else, though, the distinctive instrument in Soul Coughing’s arsenal was Sebastian Steinberg’s upright bass. It’s not an instrument you often associate with rock, but combined with Gabay’s responsive drums it allows the group to literally turn on a dime, from the moody melancholy of “St. Louise” to the rollicking controlled chaos of “$300”.
Another surprise is how intricate the band’s sparing use of samples and keyboard effects becomes in a live context. Often times groups that make extensive use of samples eschew them altogether in a live format, but Mark De Gli Antoni ably transforms seemingly complicated tracks like the aforementioned “$300” into organic jams, playing his sampler with every bit of the virtuosity Gabay and Steinberg approach their instruments. The sophisticated reach of their onstage ambition is almost as impressive as you would expect from, say, Radiohead. They obviously put a lot of thought into just how best these tricky and sometimes delicate songs should be translated onstage.
Of course, the star of the show is Mike Doughty. His voice is strong and supple, and impressively able able to conjure the nuances of fan-favorites like “Screenwriter’s Blues” in a live setting (although, to be fair, he does forget the lyrics to “Screenwriter’s Blues”). For someone who relies on subtlty to carry such a large part of his lyrical authority, he has a surprisingly powerful voice.
I have to wonder if the release of these bootlegs (there are a handful) has been timed to coincide with the imminent invention of Doughty’s own long-awaited solo career. He just recently got around to releasing his first two self-distributed albums on Dave Matthew’s ATO Records, and the imminent arrival (as of this writing) of his first official solo record makes for a veritable avalanche of Soul Coughing-related material—at least compared to the relative drought that immediately followed the band’s dissolution.
In any event, I’m hardly complaining. New York, NY 16.08.99 is a wonderful addition to the collection of any Soul Coughing fan, a canny and timely reminder of just how good these guys were. It may be a shame that they didn’t stick around longer, but considering how many bands stay on the shelf for far longer than their expiration dates, the fact that they came together for just long enough to release a handful of discs without compromising their quality is pretty astounding. Like fellow ‘90s refugees Rage Against The Machine and Portishead, they walked offstage in just enough time to leave us perpetually hungry for more.
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