Scrap / Paradigm Publicity
Scrap / Paradigm Publicity

Mike Doughty's New Album is Here!

Scrap / Paradigm Publicity
Scrap / Paradigm Publicity

I've been a fan of Mike Doughty since the first Soul Coughing record came out in 1994. Ruby Vroom's mixed-up jazz both confused and entranced me, particularly on tracks like "True Dreams of Wichita" and "Mr. Bitterness," both of which sounded like slam poetry delivered over a bed of jazz, hip-hop, and spooky samples. I ate up each of the band's records as they came out, despite their increasing darkness, then I ate up Doughty's solo work after the band broke up, despite its increasing lightness. Now Doughty has returned to his Soul Coughing tracks after releasing seven solo records that were extremely Soul Coughing-free. No, the band's not back together—and that's actually a good thing, as long as you're willing to let go of the darkness of the '90s.

The new record is titled Circles Super Bon Bon Sleepless How Many Cans? True Dreams of Wichita Monster Man Mr. Bitterness Maybe I'll Come Down St. Louise Is Listening I Miss the Girl Unmarked Helicopters The Idiot Kings So Far I Have Not Found the Science (a collection of all the song titles), though for short, reviewers have been calling it "Circles Super Bon Bon...." I'll suggest an even shorter title: "Circles," since it's one of the best tracks on the new record, and likely the song most people have actually heard.

Doughty's history with Soul Coughing is well-explained his memoir The Book of Drugs. The book is well worth reading for fans, because it adds a huge amount of context to the work Doughty was doing with (and apparently despite) his band in the '90s. The book will make you cringe at points, and it shows pretty much everybody (Doughty included) in a dark mess of drugs, business, and self-involved excess. I only saw Soul Coughing live once, during a pop-radio-sponsored tour that swung through Tallahassee; the audience was talking through the whole set, causing Doughty to call off the performance of "Janine" mid-song and then simply walk off stage, ending the show. At the time, I felt bad for him and the band—the audience was there to hear the radio-friendly single, "Circles," and didn't care about anything else. Long story short, The Book of Drugs explains the internal battles of the band from Doughty's perspective, and paints a clear picture: while in Soul Coughing, Doughty was utterly miserable, drug-addicted, and at war with his own band. It was a dark time for the Empire.

Album cover courtesy of Paradigm Publicity.

Because the history of Soul Coughing is so messy, Doughty avoided playing that material for roughly the past decade (the latest solo performances I've heard of those songs was on a Fox Theatre performance in 2003), despite frequent audience requests to bring it back. After reading his memoir, I get it. When people ask Doughty to play Soul Coughing songs, they're asking him to return to the worst years of his life...and he has put out seven solo records on his own terms, which provide a body of work that can easily fill any live show. So it's a surprise that he returned to this older material, releasing his own solo versions of these songs that were once so laden with darkness. And guess what? There's a pleasant lightness to the songs now. Almost too pleasant.

"Circles" plays like a party record, and I mean that in a good way. (The later Soul Coughing records could also be party records, but only if your party happened in an opium den.) This record has simple beats, solid vocal performances, and enough sampler weirdness to keep things interesting. Catherine Popper's standup bass parts anchor the songs in a way that recalls the original Soul Coughing sound, while keeping things simple and strong. The frequent use of samples is usually fun, but occasionally turns comically annoying, as in "Monster Man," which includes prominent barking dogs among its grab bag of funky samples.

Doughty used crowdfunding to release the record (disclosure: I pitched in $25 for a signed CD), and released videos showing the making of the record over a period of months. Doughty also released a variety of videos showing acoustic performances of the songs (live from his apartment), leading to an unplanned all-acoustic recording of twenty Soul Coughing songs, released separately as an online-only perk for crowdfunding participants. The results there are mixed, but they're basically bonus tracks for mega-fans. (It's interesting that the big-deal single "Soundtrack to Mary," surprisingly absent from the "Circles" record, does show up on the acoustic record. I hope he'll play it on tour.)

Of the "Circles" record, Doughty said in a press release:

"After my memoir, which was full of pain, I picked up an guitar and, by myself, went through the songs I wrote in the '90s—between the ages of 20 and 29—to figure out who I was, where I was, and what I was trying to say. There'll be more of the music I stumbled into, and fell in love with, when I came to New York as an 18-year-old—an explosion of amazing hip-hop and house music. I can use the weirdness I absorbed as a doorman at an avant-garde jazz club, when I was 21, more artfully. I think the songs can be better than they were. I can make the actual songs more hearable. I think I can make them more like what I intended them to be."

The thing about this record is that the darkness of Soul Coughing is conspicuously absent—and that's good, that's honestly a healthy place for Doughty to be now. At times, it succeeds brilliantly, as in "True Dreams of Wichita" (now rendered as a radio-friendly party anthem, formerly an angsty moper) and the snappy "The Idiot Kings" (now a completely straightforward house tune, formerly an overly jammy jazzsplosion). The progress here forces me as a longtime fan to consider what I liked about the Soul Coughing versions of these songs. The answer, to be frank, is that I liked the mixture of (my own) teen angst and (the band's) frequent ability to make catchy-yet-complex music that appealed to that dark place. As an adult, I'm glad Doughty has made a record devoid of darkness, largely because I'm glad he as a person survived his misadventures in the '90s. As a former teenager, I still cling to the angsty versions of many of these songs. But guess what? Now we have both. There is no net loss here, though I can imagine many fans will scoff at such an "up" rendering of these songs that were once so dark, and likely totems of their own dark pasts.

Here's the first video from the record, for "Super Bon Bon." Yes, it's utterly bananas. Yes, it's kind of dumb/funny/ridiculous. Doughty doesn't take himself too seriously at this point, and that's a serious contrast from his overly seriously presentation in videos from two decades ago. Incidentally, I give director Meg Skaff major bonus points for the MC Frontalot cameo here—Front was the subject of my first blog post for Mental Floss, way back in 2007.

If you're curious, compare that to the Soul Coughing video for "Super Bon Bon." Notice a difference in tone?

Where to Get the Record

It's available everywherehit Doughty's site for links to iTunes, Amazon, and local stores...along with nine things he would "like you to know." Doughty is also on tour in the U.S., likely coming to a town near you!

Blogger disclosure:  I received an early listen to the record in MP3 format, but paid for my own copy of the CD. I was not specially compensated to write this review.

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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