[7 August 2014]
Former Soul Coughing frontman and current solo artist Mike Doughty released The Book of Drugs, his memoir, in early 2012. It contained stories from across his lifetime, but all anybody wanted him to talk about were the extensive passages in the book that contained his thoughts and feelings about his time in Soul Coughing. By and large, fans and the media seemed shocked at the vitriol and bitterness Doughty had for the other three members of the band, as well as Doughty’s admission that just hearing Soul Coughing songs gave him violent tendencies. But through the course of 2012, talking through the book to various media outlets and reading passages at his concerts seemed to give Doughty the kind of catharsis he needed with regards to his former band. The anger and bitterness towards the rest of the band didn’t necessarily dissipate, but the passionate fan interest in his rejection of his own material from the ‘90s at least gave him pause to reevaluate his feelings.
The result was a crowd-funded studio album, released in September 2013, where Doughty recorded 13 new versions of Soul Coughing songs, followed by a tour consisting solely of Soul Coughing material. The album, Circles Super Bon Bon…, was exactly the kind of mess one would expect from a man whose relationship with these songs could be described as ambivalent at best. A few, particularly the poppier and more songwriter-focused songs, sounded pretty good. But Doughty seemed to intentionally bury the bass in the mix, and any time he tried his hand at inserting samples or synth sounds into songs it came off as laughable. Circles Super Bon Bon… unintentionally made an excellent case for the unique skillset of Soul Coughing keyboard sampler player Mark De Gli Antoni while also seemingly revealing some of Doughty’s insecurities involving the importance of bassist Sebastian Steinberg.
Live at Ken’s House serves to essentially close out Doughty’s Soul Coughing project. It was recorded with his touring band, bassist Catherine Popper and drummer Pete Wilhoit, four days after that tour ended. There is no crowd present at this “show”, so it’s just the band playing their takes on the Soul Coughing material live to tape. The good news is that the bulk of the material on this album is substantially different from the Circles Super Bon Bon… record. Also positive is that Popper’s bass is clearly audible all the way through the album this time around, which is a pleasant change. Wilhoit’s drums have a lot of energy, and are recorded with a pleasing amount of pop and snap.
For the most part, this is an improved take on this material. Doughty and his band make some interesting choices, which pay off roughly 65% of the time. A positive example is the opening track, which combines “So Far I Have Not Found the Science” and “Moon Sammy” into one massive six and a half minute song. It’s a clever and very entertaining take on the two songs that switches back and forth between the two without leaving the back half of either song out, like most medleys do.
The other combined track on the album, “How Many Cans Monster Man” doesn’t work quite as well. “How Many Cans” is basically the same as the original song, except that the slow, crawling drumbeat is replaced by an uptempo beat reminiscent of Soul Coughing’s “Rolling”. The uptempo beat pretty much destroys the song’s mood, taking away the song’s feeling of weight and depression. It doesn’t help that the song has no guitar, which leaves Doughty free to play around with intrusive samples that serve to further distract from the song’s original mood. In contrast, “Monster Man” is played pretty much straight, and the same uptempo beat works much better in this context. Doughty tries the same trick later on the record with “Sugar Free Jazz”, with similarly disheartening results. In this case, the ‘90s jungle-style beat removes the song’s easygoing, languid feel and replaces it with something much less distinctive.
Generally, the less experimental Doughty is, the better these songs sound. “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” is played refreshingly straight without being a carbon copy of the original. Doughty subs out most of the city shout-outs from the Soul Coughing version with different cities, and there’s urgency to his free-form guitar playing that pairs well with the song’s deep groove. “Soft Serve” prominently features Popper’s bass playing, and she finds a bassline that retains the feel of Steinberg’s original without replicating it. “Bus to Beelzebub” is just about the only time on the record where the sampler works as intended. But that’s because the song is so dependent on the samples of Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” that it wouldn’t even be a song otherwise.
A four-song acoustic guitar set mid-album goes down pretty easily, as well. The first and third songs, “Fully Retractable” and “Maybe I’ll Come Down”, were originally slow and quiet, so it’s no surprise that they work nicely in this context. “$300”, on the other hand, was one of the fastest songs in the Soul Coughing catalog. But it turns out that Doughty’s distinctive guitar riff and vocal melody are more than up to the challenge of carrying the song without a drumbeat. Then again, the acoustic version of “Super Bon Bon” is a miscalculation in every way. Marrying Doughty’s borderline nonsense, stream of consciousness-style lyrics to a brand new acoustic guitar part just strips the song of its core. Soul Coughing’s rhythm section of Steinberg and drummer Yuval Gabay were probably 80% responsible for that song’s success, and by not letting Popper and Wilhoit play here, Doughty inadvertently shines a light on exactly why that song worked.
The rhythm section is also missed on “Lazybones”, where Doughty again goes it solo. He trades the acoustic guitar for a synthesizer on this one, which is at least an interesting idea. But the locked-in groove of the original song was so strong that it really can’t be replaced. At least with this song, though, the vocal melody is catchy and compelling, so replacing the bass and drums with synth noodling merely comes off as an ill-conceived remix, not something that effectively destroys the song.
The other songs on Live at Ken’s House are basically replications of the Soul Coughing versions, so “Circles”, “St. Louise Is Listening”, and “Unmarked Helicopters” contain no surprises. The album also includes an intrusive, grating cover of “Super Bon Bon” by female hip-hop collective HJA with terrible new lyrics. But coming right after Doughty’s version of the song actually makes it sound halfway decent by comparison.
It’s hard to think that these two albums won’t end up as on odd blip on the spectrum of Doughty’s solo career. These versions of the songs aren’t really going to satisfy Soul Coughing fans, and devotees of Doughty’s solo material probably won’t be all that into this, either. For those of us who enjoy both incarnations of Mike Doughty, this foray will likely feel like a curiosity of little substance that is quickly forgettable. Regardless, despite the handful of egregious missteps, Live at Ken’s House is a clear improvement over Circles Super Bon Bon…. The album benefits greatly from the inclusion of live drums and bass at the appropriate volume level. Whether he was energized from a successful tour or excited about putting the project to bed, Doughty himself seems to have real enthusiasm for the material this time around. It makes a positive difference, even when a rearranged version of a song doesn’t really work.