Soul Coughing probably shouldn’t have lasted nearly a decade. They formed in the early 1990s when singer-songwriter Mike Doughty—then working as a doorman at venerable New York City club, the Knitting Factory—recruited a trio of musicians to join him for a one-off gig. Unlike Doughty, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, drummer Yuval Gabay, and keyboardist/sampler Mark De Gli Antoni were all accomplished players with years of experience around New York. Likewise, they were each in their 30s when the band began, whereas Doughty was only in his early 20s. To hear Doughty tell it in his memoir, The Book of Drugs, the relationship between him and the other three was always strained at best (and at worst, downright toxic).
But Doughty had songwriting chops and a big personality as a vocalist. His songs tended to take the form of either stream of consciousness raps or more confessionally sung storytelling. Plus, his often spare guitar playing—sometimes to the point of minimalism—left the rest of the quartet with plenty of space to lay down grooves and experiment with sounds. They quickly built a following in New York City, and they even signed to major label Slash Records within a year of getting started.
The band’s debut, 1994’s Ruby Vroom, laid out their sound: a potent mix of hip-hop swagger, huge beats, a healthy dose of weirdness, and a dash of vulnerability. It was the kind of music that could quickly find an audience in the ’90s, especially with the marketing muscle of Slash Records behind them. With buzz pushing them forward, 1996’s Irresistible Bliss could have been the album to make them legitimate rock stars.
Producer David Kahne—who, at that point, had worked with everyone from punk legends like Fishbone and Mike Watt to living legends like Tony Bennett and Dick Dale—was onboard (presumably to make the record a little more accessible than its predecessor). Over the next three years, Kahne would go on to produce a whole string of ’90s hits. He put Sugar Ray on mainstream radio and took the Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” to #1. Kahne most notably translated Bradley Nowell’s half-formed ideas into actual songs for Sublime’s massive self-titled third and final album. Irresistible Bliss didn’t reach those heights, but it did manage to put two singles on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart (“Soundtrack to Mary” and “Super Bon Bon”), thereby raising Soul Coughing’s profile significantly.
The Book of Drugs is great for getting inside information on those days, but it’s admittedly a one-sided picture. I believe Doughty’s stories are honest in the book, as he wasn’t shy about admitting to all kinds of heavy substance abuse and other foibles. Yet, considering how much he was under the influence at the time, it seems prudent to take his recollections with a grain of salt.
Doughty tells the story of recording the LP in two different sessions. Kahne ran the first one and supposedly captured an excellent version of the whole thing in a mere 18 days. But a second session, originally booked with a separate producer to record a single song for a soundtrack—presumably, “Unmarked Helicopters” from The X-Files TV soundtrack, which also released in 1996—expanded into a rerecording of about half of the album (initially without Kahne’s knowledge). Doughty was reluctant to do this after loving the first session but was goaded into it by the band. Eventually, Kahne got wind of this and showed up to finish the second session.
The final version of Irresistible Bliss contains seven tracks from the first session and five from the second. Officially, three of the second session tracks are credited to Steve Fisk, an experienced producer who recorded many early proto-grunge acts in Seattle. However, according to Doughty, Fisk was gone after “Unmarked Helicopters”, and Tom Schick—a starstruck young recording engineer—was the one working on the songs. To my ears, there isn’t much sonic difference between the two sessions, but then again, this is a record that covers a lot of musical ground anyway. It often changes wildly stylistically from track to track, and that’s a big part of its charm.
What isn’t a part of its charm is the awful cover, whose bottom half features a photo of Steinberg’s face cut off at his upper lip. He’s wearing black goggles that obscure his eyes, too. Next to him is what proportionally looks like a doll but may be an actual woman with a blonde bouffant. She is wearing a lavender sleep mask with cartoon eyes drawn on the front; behind them is a background of golden brown curtains, with Steinberg’s shadow prominently taking up the left half of the image.
Up top, there’s a thick white line, and above that, the background changes to a dark blue. The words “Soul Coughing” are presented in a superhero-style block font, slanting up slightly to the right and in a white-yellow-green gradient. “Irresistible Bliss” is in a lighter shade of blue on the top right, obscuring part of the word “Soul” and almost blending in with the background shade of blue. To top it off, there’s a velvety puppet-style donkey head in the top left next to the band name. Clearly, it’s a truly wretched collage, and the rest of the images accompanying the liner notes are no better.
Internal band squabbles and terrible artwork aside, Irresistible Bliss holds up quite well 25 years later. It kicks off with “Super Bon Bon”, whose deep, funky bassline is accented by well-placed snare hits and crash cymbals. Doughty’s refrain, “Move a-side / And let the man go through”, is repeated four times (enough to get it immediately stuck in your head). Between that and his shouted chorus, which includes three repetitions of the phrase “Super Bon Bon!”, the song has two vocal hooks without really having a melody. It’s a hard-hitting start to the album, yet it hits in a completely different way than both the alternative rock it shared the charts with and the hip-hop it was influenced by.
Next up is the relaxed “Soft Serve”, with a gently strummed guitar riff and an appropriately laid-back groove from Steinberg and Gabay. De Gli Antoni’s sampler sounds are much more melodic here than his noisy “Super Bon Bon” sound effects, and he even drops in a chipper piano figure as a countermelody. “Soft Serve” shows what the band can do when they back off a bit, and most of Irresistible Bliss‘ other slow songs are similarly effective. From there, “Lazybones” uses a simple two-note guitar figure to jump off into an excellent driving bassline for a compelling five minutes. Doughty sounds almost happy in his vocal delivery here, Di Gli Antoni’s sampler sounds enhance the drifting quality of the song, and Gabay locks right in on Steinberg’s bass and stays there.
“Sleepless” is the dark flipside of “Lazybones”: it’s quiet and unsettling, with a slow, tense guitar riff and disconcerting sound effects from Di Gli Antoni. Doughty’s vocals are almost a moan here, coming off as muffled and buried in the mix. As such, it captures the itchy exhaustion of being awake in the middle of the night while not wanting to be. Closer “How Many Cans?” is also slow and sparse, but the lyrical topic is loneliness and depression in the wake of a relationship gone bad. Some of Doughty’s more interesting lyrics show up here, too; “She says, ‘Yeah, but he’s not in right now’ / You pause / You liked her answer” is a line that still hits for its domestic oddness. The refrain also switches back and forth between “You know that, but you go on” and “You know but that you go on”, which is a subtle but distinct difference.
On the other hand, not all of the uptempo tracks are equally effective. “White Girl” has a solid groove, but Doughty’s shouted stream of consciousness rapping isn’t particularly good. For example, “Builder of the pyramids / The man from outer space / Innocent farm girl / Raised by the aliens / Out in Northridge / Out in the larger world” is fun, but it also seems really slight. “4 Out of 5” is similarly fluffy, as most of the words are just Doughty doing addition on the microphone (“Four and five, therefore, nine / Nine and nine therefore 18 / 18 and 18 therefore 36” comprise more than 50% of its lyrics). At least “4 Out of 5” is singable and fun, which puts it a step ahead of “White Girl”.
The only notable thing about the ugly “Paint” (the album’s nadir) is Di Gli Antoni’s interesting use of manipulated elephant noises on his sampler. In contrast, “Disseminated” is a song that sounds like Di Gli Antoni constructed it from two different melodic samples. The first is a bit of a clarinet melody from “The Penguin” by composer Raymond Scott that runs through the verses; the second is an early 20th-century style piano jaunt that is the base of the pre-chorus.
Each of the three upbeat songs that do work well is quite different. “Soundtrack to Mary” was the album’s first single, and its easygoing guitar riff and striking drumbeat are great. (Of course, it helps that it has a very singable chorus as well.) “Collapse”, with its spy movie guitar and appropriately gritty murder mystery lyrics, is the closest thing Irresistible Bliss has to a rocker, and it’s kind of fascinating to hear this era of the band crank it up. Lastly, there’s the ’70s pop-rock sound of “The Idiot Kings”. The rhythm section is incredibly funky here, but Doughty has an equally catchy jangly guitar riff and a vocal melody to match it. The chorus—”Everything is going on / Everything is going as planned / Everything is fine, fine, fine”—is probably meant to be sarcastic considering the song’s title, but it’s easy to take it at face value and enjoy the song purely as a fun sing-along.
While its occasional forays into slightly embarrassing rap-rock mark it as a product of the mid-’90s, Irresistible Bliss mostly exists on its own unique terms. The band had undeniable chemistry despite the uneasiness between Doughty and the other three members. Unfortunately, that rift would grow, and the band only managed to stay together for one more record (1998’s El Oso) before splitting up. The variety of songs here are impressive, as is how different the record is from the sequences that bookend it.
Soul Coughing have mostly drifted into “cult band” status in the decades since they disbanded. Still, their moderate success at the time is an example of how the explosion of grunge music in the early ’90s led to the much more expansive alternative rock boom of the mid-’90s. In other words, Major labels’ confusion about what kind of music young people wanted to hear in that decade benefitted a wide variety of acts that probably wouldn’t have gotten a break otherwise.