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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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10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Today marks what would have been the 101st birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the pioneering jazz singer who helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the birthday of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. SHE WAS A JAZZ FAN FROM A YOUNG AGE.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. SHE MADE HER STAGE DEBUT AT THE APOLLO THEATER.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A NURSERY RHYME HELPED HER GET THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. SHE WAS PAINFULLY SHY.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. SHE MADE HER FILM DEBUT IN AN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MOVIE.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. SHE GOT SOME HELP FROM MARILYN MONROE.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. SHE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN A GRAMMY.

Ella Fitzgerald
William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. HER FINAL PERFORMANCE WAS AT CARNEGIE HALL.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. SHE LOST BOTH OF HER LEGS TO DIABETES.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

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30 Fierce Barbra Streisand Quotes
Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images
Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images

Barbra Streisand is an artist of many talents. In addition to her famed singing and songwriting career, she’s also a celebrated actress and filmmaker with a host of accolades and awards—including two Oscars, nine Golden Globes, 10 Grammys, six Emmys, and one Tony—on her resume (so far). While Streisand, who turns 76 years old today, may be one of the best-selling artists of all time, what truly makes her memorable is her total originality. While her creative talents made her a star, her no-nonsense attitude has made her an icon, as evidenced by the quotes below.

1. ON HER WILD YOUTH.

“I was kind of a wild child. I wasn't taught the niceties of life.”

2. ON PURSUING YOUR DREAMS.

“As a young woman, I wanted nothing more than to see my name in lights.”

3. ON REMAINING TRUE TO ONESELF.

“I arrived in Hollywood without having my nose fixed, my teeth capped, or my name changed. That is very gratifying to me.”

4. ON INSTINCT.

“I go by instinct—I don't worry about experience.”

5. ON BEING CONTRADICTORY.

Barbra Streisand on stage
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

“I was a personality before I became a person—I am simple, complex, generous, selfish, unattractive, beautiful, lazy, and driven.”

6. ON TRUSTING YOURSELF.

“You have got to discover you, what you do, and trust it.”

7. ON THE DEFINITION OF SUCCESS.

“Success to me is having 10 honeydew melons and eating only the top half of each slice.”

8. ON APPLAUSE.

“What does it mean when people applaud? Should I give 'em money? Say thank you? Lift my dress? The lack of applause—that I can respond to.”

9. ON BAD REVIEWS.

“I wish I could be like [George Bernard] Shaw, who once read a bad review of one of his plays, called the critic, and said: 'I have your review in front of me and soon it will be behind me.’”

10. ON THE DEFINITION OF “EGO.”

Barbra Streisand addresses her fans
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images

“To have ego means to believe in your own strength. And to also be open to other people's views. It is to be open, not closed. So, yes, my ego is big, but it's also very small in some areas. My ego is responsible for my doing what I do—bad or good.”

11. ON DOUBLE STANDARDS.

“Men are allowed to have passion and commitment for their work ... a woman is allowed that feeling for a man, but not her work.”

12. ON SAYING WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND.

“I knew that with a mouth like mine, I just had to be a star or something.”

13. ON THE LESS GLAMOROUS SIDE OF SHOW BUSINESS.

“I don't enjoy public performances and being up on a stage. I don't enjoy the glamour. Like tonight, I am up on stage and my feet hurt.”

14. ON GETTING IT RIGHT.

“I don't care what you say about me. Just be sure to spell my name wrong.”

15. ON FOLLOWING YOUR HEART.

A photo of Barbra Streisand
Harry Benson, Express/Getty Images

“Nobody on this earth has the right to tell anyone that their love for another human being is morally wrong.”

16. ON THE IMPORTANCE OF TRUTH.

“I can take any truth; just don't lie to me.”

17. ON KEEPING IT SIMPLE.

“I like simple things. Elastic waists, so I can eat.”

18. ON WHY BEING “DIFFICULT” CAN BE A GOOD THING.

“I've been called many names like perfectionist, difficult and obsessive. I think it takes obsession, takes searching for the details for any artist to be good.”

19. ON LIMITATIONS.

“I just don't want to be hampered by my own limitations.”

20. ON THE TRUTHFULNESS OF AN AUDIENCE.

"The audience is the best judge of anything. They cannot be lied to. Truth brings them closer. A moment that lags—they're gonna cough.”

21. ON FINDING THE PERFECT MATCH.

Barbra Streisand and James Brolin
Sonia Moskowitz, Getty Images

“What is exciting is not for one person to be stronger than the other ... but for two people to have met their match and yet they are equally as stubborn, as obstinate, as passionate, as crazy as the other.”

22. ON THE FUTILITY OF MYTHS.

“Myths are a waste of time. They prevent progression.”

23. ON THE NATURE OF PERFORMING.

“Performing, for me, has always been a very inner process.”

24. ON THE DOWNSIDE OF STARDOM.

“I think when I was younger, I wanted to be a star, until I became a star, and then it's a lot of work. It's work to be a star. I don't enjoy the stardom part. I only enjoy the creative process.”

25. ON THE TROUBLE WITH LOVE.

“Sometimes you resent the people you love and need the most. Love is so fascinating in all its forms, and I think everyone who has ever been a mother will relate to this.”

26. ON THE IMPORTANCE OF DOUBTING YOURSELF.

Barbra Streisand poses for the press
Terry Fincher, Express/Getty Images

"Doubt can motivate you, so don't be afraid of it. Confidence and doubt are at two ends of the scale, and you need both. They balance each other out."

27. ON AMBITION.

"I've always liked working really hard and then doing nothing in particular. So, consequently, I didn't overexpose myself; I guess I maintained a kind of mystery. I wasn't ambitious."

28. ON CONSTANTLY EVOLVING.

“I'm a work in progress.”

29. ON HER FAMOUS NOSE.

“I've considered having my nose fixed. But I didn't trust anyone enough. If I could do it myself with a mirror.”

30. ON BEING AN ORIGINAL.

Barbra Streisand with Barack Obama
Alex Wong, Getty Images

“I guess if you have an original take on life, or something about you is original, you don't have to study people who came before you. You don't have to mimic anybody. You just have a gut feeling inside, an instinct that tells you what's right for you, and you can't do it in any other way.”

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