If I tackle enough greatest hits, I might be able to get away with reviewing a fraction of the records I should.
As it stands, I should absolutely hate Soul Coughing. They traffic in the clichés that annoy me about coffeeshop artists, from the acoustic guitar to the sung-spoken poetry delivered in all seriousness. Their name is violently stupid. Vocalist/lyricist M.(ike) Doughty even attended college with Ani DiFranco, and together they shared bills. I hate Ani DiFranco. I hate poets, and I hate hippies. I hate the Dave Matthews Band. (More on that in a minute.) I think I hate all this so much because I bought into it to a degree when I was in college myself, aspiring to write awesome poetry and awesome songs and impress everybody. (Well, I didn’t buy into Ani DiFranco and Dave Matthews. I wasn’t that stupid.)
I hate that me. He’s embarrassing.
But I’m not going to take it out on Soul Coughing, no matter how much it seems I ought to try. During the late 1990s, I did actually actively listen to and enjoy Soul Coughing. And it turns out, even after a few years, I still like them. There, I said it. And it’s not even that hard a call to make – despite what I say above, the music is for the most part highly interesting, and (some) lyrics aside (much of which make no sense to me, sue me), I can’t be too much of a curmudgeon here. And what better way to reacquaint oneself to a band without having to slog through an entire discography, potentially alienating oneself with deeper cuts, than with the posthumous greatest hits album? Score! Skim, overview, done. I won’t have to review Ruby Vroom in the pages of this column, ever. (Not that I would have anyway. I might have reviewed El Oso.)
What sets Soul Coughing apart from jocks playing dress-up as sensitive musicians? (Other than the fact that Doughty, sampler Mark De Gli Antoni, and drummer Yuval Gabay all have ties to sax shredder John Zorn.) Well, that was the first answer, right there in the parenthetical aside – they employ a full-time sampler in De Gli Antoni, and his contributions greatly enhance the material, whether it’s the manic Looney-Tune assembly line theme backing “Bus to Beelzebub” or the icky “chorus” sample of “$300” (a pitch-shifted “‘How much?’ She said ‘For $300 I’ll do it’”). The former threatens to caricature itself some sort of token “joke song” in its absurdist lyrics, but the sample pushes it into frightening territory where glee and horror are blurred. I’m much happier that it obscures the solid if unremarkable upright bass and snappy drumming – it’s the centerpiece of the tune, as it should be, because it’s the most intriguing part.
Fortunately, for the most part, this “best of” is also set up in chronological order, so that the Ruby Vroom tracks flow into Irresistible Bliss tunes flow into those from swan song El Oso. Thus it’s much easier to spot how weaknesses become strengths throughout the band’s career: Ruby Vroom certainly pales in comparison to the later material, as the members coalesce by Irresistible Bliss into a real band rather than serve as backup to Doughty’s musings. It’s safe to say that the earlier material is actually quite boring at times, and Doughty’s lyric-writing skill was a rough approximation of what it would become. “Sugar Free Jazz” sounds exactly like you’d expect from a stripped-down quartet in an NYC java joint circa 1996. “Screenwriter’s Blues,” while aesthetically appealing in every way, suffers if you consider that Doughty leans on “The radio man says” conceit throughout the song, as if what’s on “the radio man”’s mind is somehow important – perhaps it was in the late 1990s, but nobody cares now. “True Dreams of Wichita” has some sort of skat-ish breakdown where Doughty says really stupid things, culminating in him repeating “I got a …thing” – to do, presumably. Guh.
Irresistible Bliss gave us “Super Bon Bon.” That’s all you really need to know. It was the band’s biggest hit, and rightfully so – that bassline, that chorus, that frantic panicked feeling – sheer genius. (A Propellerheads remix of the song is included as a bonus. It’s not half bad.) It also gave us “Paint,” with its lovely repeated insult of “I know you’re dumb as paint.” “Collapse,” has some sort of gun and violence message, I think: “Collapse, unload it, pop pop, I must accumulate.” It sounds good – whatever it means. The album simply finds the band hitting their stride, and even though there are some tracks here that are limp on arrival (“Soundtrack to Mary,” “The Idiot Kings”), they’re wonderfully made up for.
My personal favorite is El Oso, though, and that’s because of “$300,” “Rolling,” and “St. Louise Is Listening.” Somehow, the band at this point took to approximating jungle and drum-and-bass rhythms with live instruments, and this added an enticing new dimension to the band. To see them grow from coffeehouse and battle-of-the-band status to a solid songwriting studio unit that pushed the boundaries of what the individual members were capable of constructing was refreshing. It’s too bad, then, that this album preceded Soul Coughing’s permanent dissolution. See, Doughty was a junkie, and although he kicked his habit years ago (thank goodness) and is now a passionately followed solo artist, shooting horse is never good for your disposition or your relationships. (That and fighting over songwriting credits will get you every time.) El Oso saw the band out on a high note, and that’s a good thing.
What I’ve realized, now that I’ve let the band back into my life? That’s where it gets hairy.
On a bad day (or bad song), Soul Coughing sounds – and my fingers are struggling to type this – not unlike the Dave Matthews Band. Doughty has that low guttural whine (although obviously more cigarette-addled) that DM has, and when De Gli Antoni drops out, there’s not a whole lot to obscure the fact that the composition, mainly the early material, owes a debt to DMB, or at least their influences. That’s sad to me – and I don’t think I clarified it enough above, but I hate Dave Matthews perhaps more than any other musician, in part because his crummy music is so widely adored, and also because his fanbase consists of drunks, hippies, and sensitive-jock/potential-date-rapist dorm crawlers – you know, the typical H.O.R.D.E. Tour crowd. It’s sickening to come to the realization that Soul Coughing gets so close to that segment. I bet that the A&R people drooled at the prospect of relieving stinky children of rich jerks of their money, and picked out lead singles to appeal to them – “Soundtrack to Mary” and “Circles,” are two of the band’s most boring tracks, and “Blueeyed Devil” and “The Idiot Kings” could be Dave Matthews B-sides (do such things exist?). And don’t get me started on the awfully titled and heinously stupid unreleased track “Buddha Rhubarb Butter” (God, that drips hippie stench) – it’s the worst thing here. I think Doughty, for some reason, was enamored with how the three words sounded together, and he rolls them around his mouth during the chorus like they’re perfectly delicious on his palate. He’s probably sky high.
I read over this last paragraph and shake my head. I don’t want this to be obscured in any way: I hate Dave Matthews so much. So even with this undeniable comparison in mind – and the fact that Doughty is signed to Matthews’ record label for his solo material (damn you Mike Doughty!) – I still say screw it. I’m going to enjoy Soul Coughing, for what it’s worth. “Super Bon Bon.” “$300.” “Paint.” Even “Screenwriter’s Blues.” And don’t forget wonderfully creepy non-album track “Unmarked Helicopters,” which appeared on the Songs in the Key of X tribute album to The X-Files television series. I think Doughty himself may have said it best when he repeatedly pleaded in “$300,” “I need for you to be reasonable.” And while that may have been the junkie’s refrain to a straight friend, or something completely unrelated, I’ll take that to heart for once and not totally crucify the talent here. Any ballyhoo and vitriol? I’ll save that for the DMB, and those idiots who have that round white sticker (or that goddamn dancer) on the back of their minivan.
RIYL: Cake, Dave Matthews Band, Barenaked Ladies