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?
It's available everywhere—hit 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.