Mike Doughty's covers album seems like an odd collection of logical and left-field choices. But in his hands, they almost all turn out to be good decisions.
Mike Doughty's solo career began haltingly and gradually in the early 2000s, culminating in his major label debut, Haughty Melodic, in 2005. But since he returned with '08's Golden Delicious, Doughty has been increasingly prolific. His new covers album, The Flip is Another Honey, is his sixth album since '08. That list includes an instrumental electronic album (Dubious Luxury) and a two-disc live set (The Question Jar Show), and it doesn't even mention his tell-all memoir, The Book of Drugs, which hit shelves at the beginning of 2012. Doughty has a lot to say these days and he doesn't seem to care too much what medium he's using to say it.
From its tracklist, The Flip is Another Honey appears to be a quite scattered set of songs. There are a pair of John Denver covers sitting aside a pair of Cheap Trick covers, plus a couple of Broadway showtunes, and a song in French. Plus one of the Cheap Trick songs is apparently combined with a Josh Wink song. Yes, the electronica guy. But Doughty is savvy enough to make this disparate collection into a cohesive album, while putting his signature spin on each track. A lot of that is due to his instantly recognizable voice. That nasally baritone is unmistakable. But that's not all he does. His signature spare guitar playing also helps to adjust some of the more rock-oriented songs into singer-songwriter mode. And he throws in a couple of "covers" that essentially just sample bits of songs to use as a bed for his rapping.
The hip-hop stuff is usually the weakest part of Doughty's solo efforts, and that hasn't particularly changed here. It worked well back in his (now disavowed) Soul Coughing days, but the rapping over acoustic guitar bit has been an awkward fit in his solo career. Flip opens with "Sunshine", which takes a sample of John Denver singing the word "sunshine" from "Sunshine on My Shoulders" and grafts Doughty's stream-of-consciousness flow on top of it. "Tightrope" appropriates the entire chorus of The Stone Roses song and marries it to a tuneless one-note guitar drone for Doughty to rap over. Predictably, the only time the song really comes alive is during the chorus. The only other song here that doesn't really work is "Jimmy Bell" (originally by Cat Iron but based on the '70s version from 15 60 75 The Numbers Band). The Numbers Band version is a gritty funk track with a deep groove and a distinctive vocal performance from lead singer Robert Kidney, plus some kickass saxophone work. Doughty's take is still gritty, but it leeches most of the character from the song and in the process flattens it into something that sounds very monotone.
On the plus side, the rest of the album is pretty great. Doughty recruits Roseanne Cash to accompany him on "Take Me Home, Country Roads". Obviously this is a case where the original isn't going to be topped, but the two of them turn in a strong performance and do the song justice. The other hugely famous song on the album would be the Broadway show tune "Send in the Clowns", which had the potential to be a musical disaster. Instead, the song is limited to a one-minute instrumental where Doughty plays the melody on guitar instead of singing it. Crisis averted.
The two Cheap Trick covers show off the sturdiness of the band's power-pop songwriting. Doughty plays "Southern Girls" pretty much straight, and it's catchy and fun. "Reach Out", originally from the Heavy Metal Motion Picture Soundtrack, is even better. The original was over-the-top and histrionic, appropriate for the early '80s, maybe, with hair metal on the rise. But Doughty's easygoing, low-key take on the song makes it much more listenable in 2012. And then he segues into an acoustic guitar-based cover of Josh Wink's "Higher State of Consciousness" for the final third of the track. It's an out of nowhere choice that works surprisingly well.
Doughty gets out of his comfort zone a couple more times on the album. He second showtune is a relatively straightforward cover of "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" from Guys and Dolls, and he does a credible job with it. Although he has no idea to finish the song, so it just descends into shouting the chorus at the top of his lungs. Doughty inverts his usual process for "Ta Douleur", a French language pop song by Camille. Instead of doing a stripped-down cover, he turns it into a rockin' rave up and piles on the drums, synths, and organ, and jams it out for a couple of extra minutes.
The rest of the album is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from Mike Doughty doing covers. He turns in a great version of "Running Back", a lesser-known Thin Lizzy song. He takes on a typically sardonic Randy Newman tune, "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)", and nails it. He gives a bump to his friend (and onetime backing band member) Doveman, by playing his beautiful "Boy+Angel". And he closes the album paying tribute to a pair of now-iconic indie-rock bands from the '90s, Red House Painters and Low, by covering "Mistress" and "Words", respectively. It may be a down note emotionally on which to finish a covers album, but the combination of melancholy feelings and pretty melodies seems perfectly appropriate for Mike Doughty, given his own history.