Friday, October 11, 2013

Maybe Too Much Mike Doughty

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of this year talking about Mike Doughty.  Whether he’s a good human being has come into question.  Whether his last few albums were decent has come into question.


And really, I’ve given more of my headspace to the guy than anyone who isn’t at least a personal acquaintance deserves.


Yet I’ve spent the better part of the last month listening to Mike pretty much all the time I’m listening to music.


Why is that?  I’m not sure, but it brings to mind the first time my parents made Cajun chicken.


I was in college, as I recall, and for years my parents had been in a pretty firm rut as to what they were going to make, week in and week out.


Like most parents I know, they had probably a dozen recipes that were cycled and recycled.  When your cooking and eating time is limited, that’s just what you do – sit down and make what you know how to make as fast as you can make it.


And then one day, they decided to make Cajun chicken sandwiches.


This sounds complex, but it’s actually a pretty simple process.  Thaw some chicken breasts, chop up some onions and red peppers.  Pan-fry the whole mess in butter and Cajun seasoning.  Cut two large slices of bread and shove the mixture between them.


Like most of the best food in the world, it isn’t elegant, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you keep eating just because it tastes so good when it hits your mouth.


The meal was so good, and so relatively simple, that they replicated it the next day.  I should clarify: there were no leftovers.  They simply made an all-new batch of food.


As far as I know this has never happened before or since.


And that’s where I’m at with Mike.  Something about him is making me need to revisit the experience of listening to his music.


Earlier this year, I pulled out his albums again, and I discovered that while I had let his newer music pass me by, I was just loving his older stuff.  Haughty Melodic is a tremendous record (of which I’ll say more in a moment) and Skittish/Rockity Roll is a fantastic little collection that demonstrates just what you can do with a lo-fi setup and some free time.


But I felt like I was missing something, and his new collection of old Soul Coughing songs really brought that home for me.  Fully two-thirds of the songs on that record were remakes of tunes I wasn’t familiar with. 


And while the critics had warned me away from his newer records, I just thought it was time to find out for myself.


Ultimately, it came down to a question of cash, and looking into these lost artifacts was cheap.  Three of his newer albums were available at my local library.  And I only required two more Soul Coughing albums, both of which could be acquired for seventy-five cents each online.


Duly stacked up, I started trying to put together a handle that I could put on all this music.


I considered doing individual reviews for all of them, but in the end, I’m not sure I need to.  I have some very specific thoughts about each album, but I don’t know that I need 500 or a 1000 words to detail them.


So here they are in order.  With a caveat that I skipped over most/all of his live records, and also Golden Delicious, a studio album I couldn’t pick up cheap or free.


But I suspect I will soon.  And here is, more or less, why:


Soul Coughing: Ruby Vroom


A lot of the time even if I don’t really like something, I can see why other people might. 


But when it comes to Ruby Vroom, I’m genuinely uncertain how these boys got themselves a record contract.


Well… okay, I guess I can see how they might have gotten onto a small label, the kind of place that puts out spoken word records, or poetry, or jazz.  What blows my mind is that this group, and this record, got themselves onto a Warner Brothers label and got their music out the door.


I’m not saying that the record is bad, per se.  But unlike their later records, there’s no handle to grab onto.  There are no catchy songs that might serve as singles.  There’s a lot of talking that isn’t quite rapping.  There are a lot of samples that kind of work in the context of the song, but sometimes don’t (though that’s clearly deliberate).


It might be one of the most off-putting records put out by a major label since Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention snuck Freak Out! into the world.


I think there’s catchy stuff there, and the band really gets to demonstrate their chops on the record but… I have a hard time believing they got it into records stores, and I’m even more amazed they were able to release a follow-up.


Soul Coughing: Irresistible Bliss


In contrast, Bliss opens up with Super Bon Bon, which, while still kind of weird, at least sounds like the kind of thing that could be a single.


And it was.


That’s the thing about Bliss, really.  While some of it is forgettable, this time around the band appears to want you to hear their record.  There are easy songs to listen to here, and even the stuff that just appears to be flat out oddball poetry (White Girl, for example) is at least somewhat catchy underneath. 


You can follow along and not get a headache.


It’s not a pop record, exactly, but it does give up a few of those spoonfuls of sugar that help the rest of the medicine go down.


Soul Coughing: El Oso


I once heard Soul Coughing described as one of pop music’s most interesting dead ends.


I would have agreed with him, I think, if these records had been released in the opposite order.  Ruby Vroom, to be honest, feels like a dead end.  A concept that goes about as far as you can take it, jamming jazz and funk and poetry together.


You could do more of it, but you can’t really do it “better” than it was done there.


To be honest, had the group stayed in that lane, I suspect I wouldn’t be writing about them now.


But instead, as the records went on, they wandered out of that dead end and pulled into a much more regular lane.  If Ruby Vroom was a series of crazy sonic experiments, El Oso is a pop record with occasional nods back at their oddball roots.


Consider: There are three songs on the record that could be, and to some extent were, hit singles.  Circles, St Louise is Listening, and Rolling might sound a little off-kilter from what you hear on the radio, but put up against other big hits of the day, and you don’t really have to squint to see how they could butt up next to one another.


Heck, the year ended with Cher’s Believe at the top of the charts.  A little sonic flutter-pop was to be expected, and Soul Coughing delivered.


Skittish/Rockity Roll


Although these weren’t actually released together until later in their existence, I think it’s worth lumping them the way they’re lumped now.


They were, in a sense, meant to be anti-Soul Coughing songs, in particular Skittish, which is mostly just Mike and a guitar.


What the songs reveal is mostly, in my estimation, what Soul Coughing eventually revealed.  Mike has a gift for a twisty-turn melody that bounces above his underlying simple chord structures.


What does that mean?  Well, I’ll come back to it.  Suffice to say that a lot of critics complain that all his songs sound the same after a while, and in a lot of cases, the critics are correct.


It’s been said that Johnny Cash only knew three chords and that all his songs only had six notes in them, and maybe that’s true.  But Cash released almost two hundred records in his lifetime, and 50 of them were made up of fresh material.


Which is to say, you can do a lot with a little.


Of course, on the other side of things, there are stories of Mike starting to play a song, people cheering, and Mike stopping and going, “Wait, this is a new song.”


So limitations have their issues as well.


But still, this seems to go in the direction Soul Coughing was going.  Even though there is still some obtuseness, this stuff feels more like songs.  You don’t have to create your own handle, it’s there for you when you turn the record on.


Haughty Melodic


Someday, Mike Doughty will be deceased, and people will mention Soul Coughing and Haughty Melodic in their opening paragraphs.


This is not to say that what came after was bad, in my estimation.  But Haughty is one of those rare records with no real flaws.  You might find things you don’t like, yes, but those are personal and not based on the actual material presented.


Or, as I said about Ruby Vroom – I can appreciate something without liking it.  And I love Haughty.  And I think people that don’t can at least acknowledge that it does what it wants to do very, very well.


It gets that entire mixture right.  Mike’s playing is often simple, but the arrangements, so key to the success of Soul Coughing, are even more sublime here.  Listen to Busting of a Starbucks as performed by Mike, and it’s a two-chord song with a chunka-chunka strum.


But on this record, there’s cello.  And banjo.  And a bunch of other little things popping up, surprising you, carrying you along on sonic waves of excellence.


His lyrics are also first-rate, nailing little emotions of life with clever wordplay and surprising vulnerability.  It all comes together in songs like “Your Misfortune,” which flat-out states that I, yes, me, I am your friend no matter what the world does to you.


Songs like that are a little nothing, and yet they are everything.


Sad Man, Happy Man


People didn’t much care for Golden Delicious, the album that came before this one.  I have no real feelings about it myself, except that it bothered me a bit to learn that Mike had recycled 27 Jennifers off of Rockity Roll.


And by all accounts, it was the best song to be found on the record.


Sad removed all the band and fiddling around that I enjoyed so much on Haughty and broke it down to Mike, a cellist, and a drum machine.


It’s a short record, a little over 30 minutes, and even the cover has an odd handmade feel.  I’m not sure what he was going for, but it feels like he tried to pull a Beck.


Because you remember the old days, when Beck had a major label deal, but was also able to put out his teeny-tiny oddball records on other labels?


This feels like that. A funky and weird little return to Skittish days.


Critics didn’t really dig on the record, and while I get why they didn’t, it felt okay to me.


But what it really reminded me of were the days when Prince wanted out of his record contract.


In the midst of all that kerfuffle, Prince put out a record called Chaos and Disorder, and it felt like what it was – cobbled together scraps which only true fans would want and everyone else would shrug at.


And shrug they did, and Prince was allowed to go on his way.


As did Mike.


Am I right about this?  Did he revisit his weird little avenue so he could be a free agent again, now that he was just famous enough to not need a label, and perhaps more importantly, not need to share his money with a label?


I wonder.


Yes and Also Yes


I think Yes was the first record where Mike really tried to split the difference between the two Mikes in question.


After all, he was a free agent now, and he could do whatever he wanted.  And what it sounds like is, he wanted to make some money.


I’m not saying this record is a cash grab, but it does feature something you couldn’t really find on the album before it – attempts at a hit song.


Read his notes on the record, for example, and you’ll find that Drive Into the Un, which is catchy as all get-out, was meant for a Twilight Soundtrack (though it didn’t make it).  Na Na Nothing has “single” written all over it, and yeah, you can find it on YouTube complete with video.


By the time you hit the back half of the record, well, there some more silly and some more experiments (including a song sung in German, for whatever reason) But it’s clear he’s splitting a deliberate difference here.


Unfortunately, I doubt Mike pleased all that many folks with this particular album.  It’s not busy enough to be Haughty and it’s not simple enough to be Skittish, and much of the criticism fell on Mike for not writing “songs.”


Which is too bad, really.  Of the later albums, this is easily my favorite.  And if he kept producing records like this, I think I’d be all right with it.


The Flip is Another Honey


It’s strange to think that Mike has now released two albums of cover versions, but that’s what the Soul Coughing record was, and that’s what this record is too.


That worries me, really, because Mike really is on his own now.  There’s no big money backing him, and that means everything he puts out from here on in is on his own dime and his own time.


And while I am more or less okay with his little sonic experiments, records like this make me suspect that Mike takes a long time to fill up the songwriting gas tank.


And I don’t think he has that kind of time anymore.


There’s nothing wrong with the record, and I guess I give the guy props for mostly playing a deep cuts game.  People cover Cheap Trick, yes, but Mike does so twice here, and never once grabs I Want You to Want Me.  He also gloms onto John Denver and does a serviceable job, and then he takes Sunshine and raps over it and…


And it’s all fine, really.


He even digs up a couple of other songs I just plain didn’t expect.  Randy Newman’s Mankind is nicely served by Mike’s gravelly throat.  And Ta Douleur is a song I’m pretty sure I would never have encountered if I wasn’t a fan of Mike’s.


And then there’s Send in the Clowns, which features no singing.  And I like Mike, but I don’t think anyone would argue that his guitar playing is why they buy his stuff.


But like the Soul Coughing record, it’s good but doesn’t give us more Mike.  Some songs are better than the originals, and some are worse, but most are just the same.


Just this morning, I pulled out Haughty Melodic again for the second or third time this year, and I queued it up and let it go and, yeah, if I was ever going to make a case for Mike, it’s right there.


I said before that Mike takes a while to fill the tank, but more than that, what I think Mike needs is some time to himself.  He needs to plink and plunk and create and then invite someone in and collaborate them.  He doesn’t need someone to do what he dictates, he needs something to push against.


And I hope he gets it… right around 2015.

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