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Scrap / Paradigm Publicity

Mike Doughty's New Album is Here!

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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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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

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