Suckerfied Assman Tripping In His Own Dribble: An Appreciation Of Soul Coughing
By Chris Willie Williams
Just about any band or recording artist who recorded albums for any reasonable period of time has crapped out a less-than-stellar record somewhere along the way. The Beatles had Let it Be. R.E.M. has Monster. Yo La Tengo didn't really know where they were going for their first couple records. The Dead Milkmen had Eat Your Paisley. King Crimson has their entire recorded output. In fact, until 1994, Nick Drake had the only truly perfect discography I'm aware of: his tragically short career resulted in three masterpieces (Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later, and Pink Moon) and a superb, posthumously-released collection of demos and unreleased tracks (Time of No Reply).
Then, with the release of Ruby Vroom, a similarly great-though thus far under appreciated-band arose from New York City to join Drake in the pantheon of the musically flawless. That band, as you have probably gathered if you clicked on the link to get to this article in the first place, was Soul Coughing. Granted, the band wasn't exactly ignored by the world at large: their singles Super Bon Bon and Circles were minor hits in the United States; their music appeared in the films Tommy Boy, Batman and Robin, and The X Files as well as the PlayStation game Gran Turismo 2; they recorded a hilariously repetitive jingle for Baby Gap that was featured in one of that store's many ubiquitous ad campaigns; and the Webtender online drink encyclopedia credits them with inventing the Velvet Crush. (Which is delicious, by the way.)
At any rate, Soul Coughing did achieve a modicum of success-at least in the USA-but their popularity was in no way proportional to the amount of musical greatness they produced. (But then, whose is?) With the recent release of Lust in Phaze, a serviceable greatest hits package, however, you now have a chance to discover the Cough in all their glory if you've missed them the first time around. So let me describe them for you.
It's no exaggeration to say that the band consisted of four of the most talented musicians alive. Drummer Yuval Gabay attacks his kit with an electronica-based sense of unusual rhythms and precision so amazing that you'd swear his beats were laboriously programmed instead of organically beaten out. Bassist Sebastian Steinberg was granted the title of Best Bassist at the Gibson Guitar Awards in 1998 (over Les Claypool and Paul McCartney), and for good reason: on Soul Coughing's three studio albums, he devised roughly 30 of the most memorable basslines ever written, ranging from the maniacal rubber-band flailing of Blame to the foursquare funk of Uh, Zoom Zip. Mark De Gli Antoni is a sample collagist and keyboard player whose technically astounding experimental compositions can stand on their own (on his solo album Horse Tricks or, apparently, his work with mid-'90s collective Rough Assemblage, who I'm unfamiliar with but sound like they'd be somewhat nifty), but whose inspired weirdness with Soul Coughing could evoke any number of moods. And, finally, the band's driving force was guitarist and singer Mike Doughty, whose endearingly nasal speaksing and literate, inventively poetic lyrics would become the band's single most identifiable feature throughout their career.
Doughty has said that the two musical catalysts that inspired him to form Soul Coughing were hip-hop group Arrested Development (remember them?) and underground Tin Pan Alley throwbacks Drink Me. Those might seem like odd, far-flung influences for a band who would be clumped under the "alternative" banner for most of their career, but it makes sense after one listen to Ruby Vroom. Soul Coughing's debut is nothing shy of revelatory; the sounds of four hyperintelligent music geeks running around pop history with a butterfly net, and synthesizing whatever styles and genres they happen to scoop up.
Bus to Beelzebub, for instance, turns a sample from Raymond Scott's Powerhouse into something far creepier, with Steinberg and Gabay laying down a sturdy funk base for Doughty's obtuse rapping ("I feel I must elucidate/I ate the chump with guile/Quadrilateral I was, now I'm warped like a smile"), before the song explodes into jazzy chaos at the last second. Down to This is a funk-rock opus that integrates boogie-woogie and blues samples in a how-did-they-do-that? feat of seamlessness. And True Dreams of Wichita is as close to pure, heartfelt pop as the band would ever get, with a minimal rhythmic backing for a tale of betrayal by one's lover that plays up Doughty's lyrical strengths-namely, his ability to conjure specific moods and images while still leaving their meaning relatively open-ended-and also manages to incorporate a peppy hip-hop bridge. Apart from the album's sluggish sequencing (a problem that can be corrected with a properly programmed CD player), Ruby Vroom is one sustained, rhythmic soufflé of brainy stylistic chaos.
Two years later came Irresistible Bliss, an album that Doughty all but disowns now-I think because he said the songs' production displeased him. And the fact that Ricky Martin's songwriters ripped off the bridge to the superb Super Bon Bon on Martin's Shake Your Bon Bon can't have sat well with him either... (His detailed reasons can evidently be found in the liner notes to Lust in Phaze, which I haven't purchased because I already have all of Soul Coughing's output. Do me a favor and tell me what they say, okay?) Despite Doughty's objections, however, Bliss is just that, from start to finish. The songs are more cohesively structured than before, even when they wobble around woozily (4 Out of 5) or go on unexpected lunatic rampages (Paint, White Girl). De Gli Antoni's samples are more straightforward as well, relying more on atmospheric sound effects than anything-goes gimmickery, but they add indispensable textures to the band's increasingly heavy bottom end.
Lyrically, Irresistible Bliss contains some of Doughty's finest moments, particularly in the unhealthy loneliness on display in Lazybones, a tale of a drug addict who is in love with an alcoholic. In one masterful swoop of a song, Mike displays his gifts for impeccably phrased observations ("The cameraman sways to remember how the eye dances"), phonetically catchy phrases ("When all the world has lain and sank and money sleeps inside the banks"), and moments of emotion during which he manages to describe indescribable feelings ("If I could stay here under your idle caress and not exit to the world and phoniness and people..."). Scorchingly sad but endlessly listenable, Lazybones is a highlight on an album that's basically nothing but highlights.
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