[21 November 2011]
Mike Doughty came to a sort of prominence leading the band Soul Coughing, and it’s obligatory to refer to him as being ex- of that band, which disbanded a decade ago for a number of reasons. By this point, though, he’s recorded more music as a solo artist, and it might be that his post-band career will be the era that has a more lasting impact. He’s developed a specific sound over the last decade that is sleekier and more listener-friendly than his Soul Coughing work, but not entirely divorced from the bounce of that band. New release Yes and Also Yes (his fifth solo album, depending on how you’re counting) seems to crystallize his approach to rhythmic grooves and strange, witty lyrics.
If there’s a comfortable sort of maturity on this album, there’s no loss of playfulness. Despite the album’s affirming title, the disc opens on a negative note with “Na Na Nothing”, a trick of sequencing that puts a single and one of the top tracks first while making a joke with the structure. If Doughty’s quick to find out he’s “a chump” and meditate on the nothingness exchanged in this relationship, he’s also slyly letting us know that he’s not buying into it. He begins with “Well, your man won’t dance but I will / He’s just a cup of punch that you’ll spill,” combining bravado with a quick put-down to all concern. The cleverness comes out of hurt, sure, but with an attitude that pushes past the hurt.
Even in the seriousness of the album we find games at hand. “Makelloser Mann” comes entirely in German, and while the “immaculate man” of the title suggests a Teutonic precision, the song itself doesn’t carry the weight of continental philosophy. As one of the four songs on the album that last under two minutes, it’s a bit of a throwaway, despite its great catchiness and its ability to generate traffic to Babel Fish. If there’s a threat of getting na na nothing on the album, it’s undone by this sort of goofiness.
Play aside, Doughty’s not a comedian (not exactly) and the album has its dark sides. We should be tipped off by his shaking a duloxetine capsule as a piece of percussion. It’s an antidepressant finding its teleological end externally, which says something that only that makelloser mann could get to. At any rate, we’re led to cuts like “The Huffer and the Cutter”, a gloomy piece about a huffer and a cutter. The best these two can find might be that “she was there and he was there”, unless they realize that “love made them beautiful at last”, a concept that Doughty suggests and undermines throughout his own song.
At the opposite side of this grind, “Holiday (What Do You Want?)” delivers a Christmas song (we’re told) and a Roseanne Cash duet. The pop music and the verses provide a sort of contentment that the chorus’s use of the title’s parenthetical question can’t overcome even if it resists it. This sort of internal conflict, but not it only, keeps the music interesting. When Doughty sings “Rational Man”, it’s easy to take him at face-value, but it’s easier and more entertaining to be suspicious, and he’s artfully led us to that point of indecision.
Whether Yes and Also Yes rationally works out some dialectics or irrationally resists settling, it contains enough indeterminacy to harbor repeat-listen nuggets. Fortunately it also comes with Doughty’s hooks and a melodic sensibility on top his decades-evident ability to groove.