Deeper Cuts of Nirvana

This is from their album In Utero  which was the last album before Kurt Cobain killed himself. My recollection is that I got into this album before Nevermind because I bought it when it came out.  I thought the cover of the disc was creepy in a cool way.

My old college roommate  came to visit this weekend and as usual, we talked about music and he mentioned he did not like any of the Nirvana he heard on the radio. Well actually, he said he didn’t like the band at all and this alarmed me as even now twenty years later, I love that band. He brought up a very good point though which is that if you don’t ever hear a band’s other non hit songs, it’s hard to really gauge if you like them or not. “Smells like Teen Spirit” is certainly an awesome song, but we have all heard it about a million times now and it’s gotten old. It must be “Stairway to Heaven” syndrome. Great song the first hundred times you hear it.

I used to listen to this song before school like everyday in fourth grade. No, I was not depressed or suicidal and I never even questioned whether fish had feelings or not. I could see why this song would make someone morose, but now, I think it really displays the other side of Nirvana, the quiet as opposed to loud dynamic they borrowed heavily from The Pixies.

Nirvana has  ton of good songs and I’m far more familiar with them as a band than Pearl Jam. It is unfortunate that the public at large doesn’t know more of the deep cuts but that is not their fault. I would lay the blame on the record industry in the last thirty years and iPods, where there is no emphasis on the album. It’s all about the single and how much quick money can be made with minimal effort. It’s a damn shame, I miss cohesive long form albums.

“Pennyroyal Tea” is one from the unplugged album, which my old roommate assured me he’d heard many times so I chose the version off In Utero. The tea is supposed be able to act as an abortive and I guess part of the song is a message to his hippie friends in Seattle that this method does not work. It also seems pretty emblematic of his growing suicidal tendencies which is sad.

Kurt Cobain was definitely a pseudo-hero to me growing up, as I am sure he was to many both now and then, even if he was a drug addled self-destructive mental case. I remember seeing interviews around age 8 before his death and thinking that there must be something wrong with him because he’s so unhappy. At that point, it made no sense to me why someone who so many people loved and had so much success could be feel so down and out. His suicide really confused me for this same reason. I had only a vague idea of the self-inflicted deaths by misadventure by people like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix and it still made little sense to a fourth grader.

This one was the new song that came off of the greatest hits album in 2002 and apparently was the subject of a long running lawsuit between Courtney Love and the rest of the band. She felt it should be released as a single off of a Beatles “1” style record which it ended up being, while Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic wanted it to be on a B-Side/Rarity record. Love won, it looks like, but I’m sure they all made money off of it.

It’s hard sometimes when I talk to current students about Nirvana because they seem to think he’s their generation’s hero and that I probably don’t know anything about Kurt or Nirvana. I think it’s also a sign of me getting older because I’ve said more than once to them that I was listening to the band before they were alive. I think it’s good kids these days like the band as opposed to most of the bullshit music put out today, but it also concerns me that their fandom is interwoven with the glamorization of suicide and drug addiction. With the prevalence of suicide and self-harm in the teens today, which probably has more to do with mass media coverage than actual statistics, it is a legitimate concern that I try to mitigate whenever I talk Nirvana with the kids. My stock phrase is “Even though I love Jimi Hendrix, doesn’t mean I think it’s cool to overdose on sleeping pills and booze. What a waste of talent”.

I’ve listened to very little live Nirvana which is why I chose this track. I actually like this version more than the unplugged version, probably because I listened to it so many times as a youth.

So, I hope I have illuminated my old friend and anyone else who feels they don’t like Nirvana based on the popular radio hits. With so many internet radio options and some cool radio stations in existence, I could be wrong in thinking that any of these are even new to anyone. For my own interest, I did hear a few songs I’ve never heard and some maybe only once. The last track is one I don’t believe I’ve ever listened to before and that is super cool as I’ve been a fan for so long. For all his faults, Cobain will be remembered as a voice cut short for the 90’s generation and I hope the youths appreciate the music and take  a positive message away from this loss rather than  a negative one. As for my former roommate, I sure hope this post gave you something to like about Nirvana.

These last two tracks are off of Bleach and Insecticide, the two albums I never owned and that are a lot more punk rock then Nevermind. I was never a big punk fan but these songs sure make me want to be. Hope you found some peace Kurt, rest easy.

On the Radio (Way Back): Another Bad Creation

The other day I heard the name “Aisha” a few times in public. It wasn’t the name that struck me so much as the pronunciation–the trisyllabic “Ay-eee-sha” instead of the di-syllabic dipthonged “Ay-sha”. I found that I was shaking my head and a little confused because suddenly I was hearing a song in my head that was nearing 25 years old.

Before Kris Kross made us jump and long before Lil’ Wayne or Lil’ Bow Bow came on the stage, the tween rappers of Another Bad Creation were rocking my world. As embarrassing as it is to recall now, I can distinctly remember listening to this album in alternation with DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s Summertime. The brightness and optimism that can only belong to child stars is infectious. This song in particular reflected the simple infatuation that infects those just on the verge of adolescence

Another Bad Creation’s “Iesha” was better than their hit “Playground”, but both songs catapulted them into a sudden and surprising fame consisting of largely suburban fans, a commercial tour-de-force that followed in the footsteps of New Edition and New Kids on The Block. Who knew that the same kids would be listening to Dr. Dre and the Wu Tang clan just a few years later?

Another Bad Creation was the discovery of the erstwhile producer and sometime performer known as Michael Bivvins, the genius behind Bel Biv Devoe, a core member of New Edition and the manager creator of Boyz II Men. Like many performers from the period, Another Bad Creation disappeared. Like my youth, the act broke apart in 1993 and was never heard from again.  If anyone can tell me what happen to its members, I’d love to know. Wikipedia is ignorant.

On another note, there’s a very famous song called “Aicha” first performed by Jean-Jacques Goldman. I don’t know this song because I have some love for or knowledge of Algerian popular music. No, I know this song because of the web wonder Gellieman, whose artistic lip-syncing of this song brightened my day before the dawn of Youtube:

Gellieman. Dance. Dance, Gellieman, Dance.

Here are the lyrics. The first few parts of the song are a bit histrionic in performance. But when Gellieman dances, the whole world stops to watch

So sweet, so beautiful
Everyday like a queen on her throne
Don’t nobody knows how she feels
Aicha, Lady one day it will be real

She moves, she moves like a breeze
I swear I can’t get her out of my dreams
To have her shining right here by my side
I’d sacrifice all them tears in my eyes

Mike Doughty’s Soul is Coughing.

This is probably the only song that will sound like this on this post and not even a Doughty original, but nevertheless an important song for me by him. My freshmen year roommate and I  listened to this song so many times at like three in the morning in college, often yelling the lyrics. The band Drink Me wrote it and I’ve never heard of them or anything else they did.

After over a decade, Mike Doughty is re-embracing his Soul Coughing roots and doing a whole tour of covers by the band that made him big. SC is a band that I’ve liked as long as the Pixies or Zeppelin or any other band I’ve mentioned that I’ve listened too since elementary school. Their three albums are good from beginning to end and this alone is enough to make them a favorite band.  They had a jazzy,alternative, and hip-hoppy vibe that no one came even close to in the 90’s. Like Primus and as my brother mentioned, it might have been their uniqueness that kept them from the mainstream and big financial success.

This was their first huge hit, one of the two songs most people will recognize and one my brother runs to on a regular basis. It’s way different from anything by the Foo Fighters or Pearl Jam and makes you want to move. Even though obscure, this video from an old Playstation game is the only one I could find without ads.

Although very unique and off the beaten path of commercialism, Doughty and SC had what I’d consider to be a pretty standard rock and roll trajectory. Doughty was a struggling artist/poet with some drug problems (a la Jim Morrison) who ended up collaborating with some heavily talented jazz musicians to form the band. Doughty met the whole band through working the door at the famous Knitting Factory in NYC and turned an off night jam session into an almost decade-long career with the band. After some minor airplay with “Super Bon Bon”, they released a third album which had their most popular hit, the catchy and relatable “Circles”. This was their epoch, even if things were disintegrating internally due to songwriting credit disputes and Doughty’s increasing heroin dependency.

This song was in inescapable during 1998, seemingly on the local alternative station every other song. Doughty even makes light of this in his big solo live release “Smofe and Smang” , where he plays the song with snatches of other hit songs like “Brimful of Asha”, ” Closing Time” and the refrain “I don’t need to walk around with Urkel”.  Doughty is a funny dude, on the junk or not, and his humor has always been a draw for me.

From my observation and a little research, it’s amazing they lasted as long as they did.  Doughty’s drug use was rampant and from his book entitled The Book of Drugsthe acrimonious relationship among the band members was enough to break the band up many times over. Doughty paints such a negative picture that it’s a wonder he stayed in the band so long, a criticism some reviewers of the book have made. It’s unclear specifically who or what was the final linchpin for the break up, but Doughty quit the heroin and spent a few years drinking heavily and crossing the country multiple times on solo tours afterwards.

This was a mainstay in Doughty’s drunk repertoire and remains to this day as he’s been sober for something like ten years. “Smofe + Smang” was also a mainstay in my listening for basically my entire college career, even superseding the SC albums temporarily. The song is constructed around samples of a voicemail an ex-girlfriend left for Doughty, sample usage being another example of why SC was different from any other band of their era.

Doughty sobered up, got signed to ATO records in 2004 after meeting up with Dave Matthews at Bonaroo and has maintained a career ever since. Because of the SC negative memories, he largely did not play their songs for the last several years and it was crazy to read that he was re-recording a bunch of SC songs for a new album. He referred to the “dark marriage of Soul Coughing being annulled” on NPR and apparently this fan-funded album is doing better than any of his other solo releases. Here we come to what is my main point of this post: did Mike Doughty do this album because he has genuinely  come to terms with his SC past or because he’s broke?

I will not include any of the new songs on this blog post. I’m sure they are solid and I will listen to them someday, but the SC originals are what I grew up with and love, so it is what I will stick with. To meet him halfway, I’ve chosen many songs that are on the remix album so at least you hear some semblance of the new album if you have never before listened to Soul Coughing.

I don’t think I can say for sure what the man’s intentions were because I am not him. I did meet him one time briefly and he did seem pretty smug; however, I was newly 21 and suffering from a severe case of consuming cold beer too fast. I am sure it is annoying to have a solo career and constantly have people yell out your former band’s songs, which happened each time I saw him live. Adding to this are his feelings of anger at the band and the relation to his substance abuse problems of the past, I can see why the songs would drum up some weird feelings for the dude. Apparently, not weird enough not to play the songs ever again and to make an album of remixed songs which is selling fast.

I love the jazz bass line. The stand up rig really sounds great in every song and is yet another thing that sets this band apart. I wish more bands would have the cahones/inspiration to come up with music like this that is unapologetically original.

I’ve been the biggest cheerleader of Soul Coughing  since “Super Bon Bon”. Its one of those bands that I’ve liked since I was aware of them in the early 90’s and I’ve kept an ear out for Doughty solo stuff since the beginning as well. My heart is with SC, but I don’t begrudge Mike for trying to forge his own path or even for trying to make a little extra dough with songs he knows so many people already love. I can’t say for sure if this is his motive because he could have just finally come to terms with his animosity and this was the best way to exorcise the demons of the past. Regardless, he helped to write these songs and he should be able to do whatever he wants with them. Listen to  Soul Coughing if you haven’t, keep listening to them if you haven’t, and go see Mike Doughty if he travels to a city near you. You won’t regret it.

This is top five favorite songs by SC for me and a fitting conclusion. Like soft serve, everyone should like this band and Mike Doughty.

The Pixies: The Coolest Alternative Band

Top five of my favorite Pixies songs and classic example of the loud-soft dynamic.

Since we have covered multiple bands from the nineties recently, specifically Pearl Jam and Soul Coughing, I wanted to go back a little further before  writing on the latter band (because they are also one of my favorites). When “Smells like Teen Spirit” dropped back in the early 90’s, Kurt gave an interview saying he was trying to rip off the Pixies on that groundbreaking song. They were one of his favorite bands he said with a smile, with their loud to soft sound dynamics. Let’s be honest, that’s what made the song work, the juxtaposition of of the mumbled vocals with the loud and nearly grating crunchy guitar licks and shouts. This song will probably always represent the Gen X slackers and grunge sound and we have the Pixies to thank.

The dynamic here is almost all vocals, my favorite being when Frank Black screams “THEN GODDDDD IS SEVEN”. I have a good friend who only listens to Hip Hop, but for some reason, I got him into the Pixies and he routinely cites this as his favorite song. Also, I learned about this song via the Bloodhound Gang and their hit  “Fire Water Burn”.

After Bloodhound Gang, I stole the Elder J’s albums by the Pixies and became transfixed. I was already into Led Zeppelin, the Foo Fighters, Nirvana and The Beatles amongst all my other early musical influences. The Pixies fit right into this mold, even without a lot of guitar solos that I loved even at a young age.  They write interesting songs lyrically with a consistent unique sound that is never overbearing, which may be antithetical to my love of prog rock but I’ve always liked a variety of tunes. I didn’t know until recently that the band started at UMass at Amherst and that Kim Deal didn’t even own a bass when she answered lead singer/songwriter Frank Black’s ad for someone who liked both Peter, Paul and Mary and Husker Du. That’s funny stuff.

Kim Deal is not a crazily intricate bass player, but she is solid and inventive while also laying down some sweet backing vocals and the occasional lead like on this track supposedly dedicated to well endowed males. She left the band as of June 2013 which sucks because she was a driving force and  an inventive artist while not being the most musically trained individual. Hey, maybe it’s Breeders reunion time!

From the early touring years, after getting big in Europe, problems arose between Kim Deal and Frank Black with one incident where Frank threw a guitar at Kim while on stage. They butted heads due to musical/personal differences and what sounds like Frank’s desire to be the sole writing force. Kim was a headstrong woman and never fully warmed to the fact that Frank saw himself as the leader because he was the lead singer. They didn’t even talk for much of the last few years in the early 90’s before the hiatus and she quit for what sounds like forever last June. On one hand, this sucks. On the other, the tension helped to create some of my favorite music of the last thirty years and make a permanent mark on alternative music.

This was probably the closest they came to a pop song and another one of the first few that I heard by the band. It was this song and  “Monkey’s Gone to Heaven” that got me to delve into their albums further and discover tracks like “Caribou” and “Gigantic” amidst what is quality output pretty much throughout. A big selling point for me has been that you can listen to their albums all the way through and never need to skip a track. Few bands are like this anymore.

The Pixies never got huge, getting most of their airplay on college radio and alternative stations. They never to my knowledge got into heavy drug use, with Frank Black once saying the hardest stuff he ever got into was marijuana and it never allowed him to do anything more “creative than parallel parking.” They also never got big enough to become real conceited, except for a few things I’ve read about Frank Black. They don’t even take credit for creating anything new with sound dynamic, with Frank saying they didn’t know how to play any other way except for loud and soft, even calling it “dumbo dynamics”. Their uniqueness and a few other reasons is why they may be the coolest alternative band ever.

My brother wrote on this song before and it deserves another mention. The use of it in the end of  Fight Club may be my favorite use of a song in any movie ever. I’m thinking it’s right up there with “Born to be Wild” in Easy Rider and “Damn it feels good to be Gangsta” in Office Space. I believe Frank wrote the song about scuba diving in the Caribbean while abroad at UMass.

The Pixies are cool for a myriad of reasons. First, they seem to be very modest about their role in alternative music and I think that’s rare in a recording industry rife with arrogance and narcissism. They’ve been compared with the Velvet Underground in that they never had mainstream commercial success, yet they have influenced scores of other bands. Secondly. they have a very unique sound which is unlike any other band I’ve ever heard. As with Primus, progressive rock and most of the bands I really like, I think this is important above all else. Not just in their music, but also in their lyrics which often deal with Biblical themes and other topics atypical of traditional alternative music. Lastly, I have loved them since about elementary school and this can be said about very few bands for me, Zeppelin being the only band that comes quickly to mind. I haven’t seen them live but I hope to and I hope Kim comes back. Long live the Pixies!

This has always been high on my list of favorite Pixies jams. I love the “Buy me a soda” lyrics, even though it sounds like it has to do with a hands preacher when I read the song’s lyrics as a whole. What I’d do to be able to go back to 1987 and see them in their prime.

Forgotten Classics: Irresistible Bliss (Album Review)

Recently, I checked an old email inbox (over the years I have acquired no fewer than half a dozen email addresses, all of which are still Irresistible+Bliss+Soul+Coughing++Irresistible+Blactive) where I found an email from Mike Doughty, the former singer of Soul Coughing and now solo artist extraordinaire. I think I ended up on his email list way back in 2003 or something. And, due to his career arc or native enthusiasm, he seems to send out updates himself.

The update in question was about an album of ‘re-imagined’ Soul Coughing songs (Circles) to be released shortly. I was intrigued—his live shows are great and his solo renditions of Soul Coughing songs can be revelatory or just fun, but rarely boring. So, as is my wont, I pre-ordered the damn thing and listened to it the first day I had it. The surprise? My children went nuts for his new version of “Super Bon Bon”. Every time they get into the car, they want to hear it.

Listening to these new versions of Soul Coughing songs obviously makes me nostalgic. Perhaps not so obvious is how much hearing them makes me wish I had already written about one of the three great Soul Coughing albums. But, then it occurred to me: I sat down one day when we started this blog and couldn’t figure out which album deserved it more, Ruby Vroom or Irresistible Bliss. When I return to the issue now, however, there is no contest. Ruby Vroom may be less mainstream, more experimental and, let’s say, more quintessentially Soul Coughing, but Irresistible Bliss was the first Soul Coughing album I owned; it is great from beginning to end (with the exception of one or two songs); and it was the center of so many debates in my first few years of college that I can’t imagine not writing about it.

Let’s just get this out of the way. If I were stuck on a desert island or adrift in space, Irresistible Bliss would certainly be one of the few albums I would take with me. The reasons are as follows: (1) its variety; (2) its musical creativity and difference; (3) its vocal / lyrical dynamism and (4) my own personal memories connected to the album. There are few albums from the 90s or even the past two decades that are as unique as either of the first two Soul Coughing albums. But this album was uniquely part of my life for (now) more than a few years.

Let’s start with the variety and the memories . (Ah, shit, I’ll just mix it all together anyway. At least I started with a clear set of points.) The first song I remember hearing by Soul Coughing was “Soundtrack to Mary” which played for a short while on the local alt-rock station in Maine. I remember being intrigued by the combination of dirty acoustic rock chord-voicing with light samples, hard upright bass and a bevy of other sounds that were just familiar enough to not be completely industrial. The vocals seemed rather typical of the period—rough, gritty yet still melodic. Earnest is a word that might be used now.

But it was the lyrics that struck me. As a wannabe poet at the time and a student of classical languages I was struck by the anaphora of the first few lines (“Easy places to get away to / Easy limbs languid all around you”) made all liquid with alliteration and the surprising adjective languid. As impressive as the sounds (and Mike Doughty has a way to play with syllables and meaning that is powerful), are the images. “Easy places” and “languid limbs’—seemingly relaxed in their languor—were transformed into something more serious with the next line where Doughty sings “All my time is / Dirt on your hands.” The unity of the grand with the earthy and disposable is arresting. Doughty remains creative with words throughout the song—the final  “I know the sound that you made and I / Can’t seem to unremind myself”  is both a creative use of language and another powerful—albeit unclear—image. The lyrics of the best Soul Coughing songs do what I tell my students all great art should do, they offer an invitation to interpretation. They engage the audience and reward contemplation.

And that is what the song was to me. But what struck me later about the band is how this song that I couldn’t get out of my head wasn’t even typical of the band. Months later when the song “Super Bon Bon” was a hit on the radio, I didn’t even know it was by the same band. “Super Bon Bon” is faster, something closer to a mix between REM and Prodigy (I know, a terrible idea) than a coffee house acoustic band messing with a sampler (which is what I thought I heard in “Soundtrack to Mary”). But I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started mulling over the lyrics. The second verse and chorus are etched into my mind:

Some kind of verb.

Some kind of moving thing.

Something unseen.

Some hand is motioning

to rise, to rise, to rise.

Too fat, fat you must cut lean.

You got to take the elevator to the mezzanine,

Chump, change, and it’s on, super bon bon

Super bon bon, Super bon bon.

Now, in part I was drawn in because I didn’t know what he was saying in the chorus (and who else but a great rapper or Mike Doughty could make the instructions written in the subway—take the elevator to the mezzanine—exciting). Here, Doughty is a great verbal artist not just because of his balance of sound and sense but because of his creative and explosive use of the phonemes available in English. His vowels stretch; his labial ‘p’ pops; and he rapidly twists through lines that could be made beautiful by almost no one else. Great poets create beautiful language; but they also find the beautiful in the everyday.

In 1996 or so I saw Soul Coughing open up for Dave Matthews and was so blown away by the static yet electric performance that I have literally no memory of one song played by the headlining band. If you don’t know Soul Coughing, what you need to know is that no band has ever really sounded like them. With the poetic jazz-spoken, half-sung lyrics over an upright bass, the band’s set-up owes something to Beat performances of an earlier generation. (And we used to try to imitate Doughty’s delivery in the dorm room pointing out “Is Chicago, is not Chicago” or rolling and inverting “you can be my baby doll / you can be my doll baby”.

But in addition to these sounds, you have Doughty’s guitar playing, a jazz-inspired and smart drummer, and the samples and fiddle of the poly-instrumentalist and composer Mark De Gli Antoni. The polyglot sound draws on industrial influences (some harder like Ministry, others more predictable and rocky like Dinosaur Jr.) and has a progressive feel to it; but the song structures hew to the short-pop aesthetic: verse, bridge, chorus and repetition. Where other (more experimental bands) like Caribou or even conventional rock bands in experimental phases like Radiohead would strain and break song structures, Soul Coughing remained unconventionally conventional. The overall sound is something that was destined to happen in the 1990s (a hip-hop and jazz influenced, lyrics-focused, rhythm and rock fugue) but never really found much realization elsewhere. Soul Coughing had some hits, but they never really made it mainstream.

What surprises me when I look back at it is why Irresistible Bliss wasn’t bigger. As I listen to it again, I cannot think of many albums of the same even and innovative quality. When I first got to college, it was one of the first things my roommate and I bonded over.We once spent a New Year’s Eve at the house of a classmate who didn’t own a television drinking gin, listening to the radio and debating songs like “White Girl” and “4 out of 5” and, of course, whether Irresistible Bliss could possibly be better than the debut Ruby Vroom. Yet, with the exception of two or three other people, nobody really seemed to know about them. We used to try to proselytize the Soul Coughing sound, but as soon as we did, the world changed to feature Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.

The sound, admittedly, was different. But the lyrics and songs were also challenging. The second song on the album, “Soft Serve”, seems like a dance number lost in the gulf between “Groove is in the Heart” and “Walk on the Wild Side”. The lyrics seem fun and light at the beginning, but upon reflection the accumulation of words and images communicate a drug fugue—the image of the dripping ice cream transforms into hallucinogenic impressions of heroin use. The language is inventive and beautiful, yet the tension between the sound and the content makes it a terrible beauty.

Less vivid but not less strange is the song “White Girl”, the album’s third track, that my wife (who is not white) took some strange offense to until we told her that the lyrics talking about the female white victim were supposed to communicate the fact that news reports in the early nineties and before used to report the ethnicity of everyone but white people. The song is appropriately angry, indignant and sharp as Doughty snaps and yells “white girl” over the rumble of the rolling bass.

(We discovered the meaning of the song after the drummer in my college band found out that Doughty had an entire page where he explained the inspiration and meaning behind the songs. Doughty has always been so generous to his fans.)

The album is made up of  songs that bridge the gaps between fun, surprising, lyrical and intellectual. “Lazybones” seems like a lark—its pace slows down the desperate pleas of “Soundtrack to Mary” only to speed up again to become an address to a lover:

Cool you, Miss Amaze, with a handful of water

trucks encircling, bearing down, coming louder.

If I could stay here, under your idle caress

and not exit to the world and phoniness and people.

While Doughty drags out the vowels of “lazybones”, he moves quickly over the consonants of this verse until he slows to almost mumble-sing the last line. Doughty’s lyrics are always so impressionistic and disjointed that one might suspect—and rightly—heavy drug use; but what buoys them and endows them with a universality denied to other drug-infused writers (e.g., Burroughs) is that his obscurity is almost always balanced by a statement of truth, moments of honesty as when he worries in this last verse about “phoniness and people”.

Sometimes, though, he doesn’t need to be earnest to be catchy. The musical ode to numbers, “4 out of 5”, is rhythmic, compelling and, I suspect, philosophical in its chemical-fugue way. Again, Doughty shows here how a great verbal artist can make beauty out of the ordinary and find poetry even in something superficially unpoetic, like subtraction and addition. The song starts with an image of a woman whose knees are spread sidewise and twists the way a wandering thought will through a series of metonymic associations:

Her knees thrust in one direction

like a symbol of math, a symbol meaning greater Than.

I come recommended by four out of five,

I’m a factor in the whole plan.

Four and five therefore nine,

Nine and nine therefore eighteen,

Eighteen and eighteen therefore thirty-six,

Four and five therefore nine.

Reading these words does little justice to the rhythm and artistry that makes this song memorable. Listen to the way these simple numbers and their relationships are imbued with meaning. I have no idea how these songs were composed, but the organic whole of sound and content defies the normal sense you could possibly imagine. This band literally creates something memorable out of material other bands would ignore. Part of this, I think, is the sampling aesthetic embraced by the composer De Gli Antoni. But recycling and allusion have always been part of the literary tradition.

What makes the album great rather than good is that even the less memorable songs—those you might not name without listening to it again—are really good songs. “Paint” and “Disseminated” are rhythmic tours de force showcasing more paranoid and aggressive strains in the band’s music.  The contemplative and plodding “Sleepless” is an existential ode to insomnia that is profound in the way it claims agency for the singer (“I got the will to drive myself sleepless”) but also denies true control (“Well I call for sleep / But sleep it won’t come to me”). Sleep is turned from a thing to a person who moves “Shuffling in the hallway, / I can hear him on the stairs / I hear his lighter flicking.” Suddenly, with this revelation (the lighter) the “smoke” and “time” of the first few lines make sense. Like many of the songs, even the later songs on the album ask and demand the audience to listen and think.

I hear the soft sigh of his inhale.
And the whole width of my intentions
He exhales into the air.

The final song on the album (“How Many Cans”) commemorates the impossibility of forgetting about a broken relationship. I remember arguing with a kid from high school about this song—he didn’t want to like it because it was about drowning your sorrows. But it, like the others, combines driving and surprising sound with imaginative and evocative lyrics within an explosive and articulate vocal performance.

In retrospect, I think that Soul Coughing suffered a bit from its own originality and talent. Sure, we can pretend that the alt-rock revolution allowed for more varied music to hit the mainstream, but as a matter of fact, most of it still came from conventional three to five piece rock bands that might have been Poison or White Snake in another generation. Most ‘different’ bands were only slightly different: look, a saxophone. Hey, this guy plays the harmonica! Soul Coughing didn’t (and doesn’t) fit any clear generic concept. It must have been a nightmare to market them.

Different but not different in the right way?

Different but not different in the right way?

I have seen Doughty live multiple times and bought all of his solo albums. His lyrics remain inventive, but the total effect of the band is something I have long missed. His live performances of Soul Coughing songs are energetic and dynamic; the recordings seem less so—which implies to me that as compositions the songs depend upon the other instruments, the rhythm and the collective will. As a comparison, his own compositions like “The Only Answer” work much better as stand alone solo songs.

Ruby Vroom has great songs like “Sugar Free Jazz”, “True Dreams of Wichita” and the haunting final track “Janine”. Song-to-song, however, it isn’t as consistent. Irresistible Bliss passes the two most essential tests I have for a great album: it is listenable beginning to end and it makes me remember. Now that my children are learning to love it too, I can only conceive of loving it more.

On the Radio (Flashback): Second Acts, The Rentals, “Friends of P”

“There are no second acts in American Lives…” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Back in the 1990s when I was tooling around southern Maine in a rapidly deteriorating Ford LTD Stationwagon, I relished the pure joy of a few months of low-advertising and risk-taking on the local alternative rock station. One of the few things I remember about this period is the overwhelming airplay bestowed upon Weezer’s first album. Despite the overwhelming success of this debut, the band couldn’t stay together.  The bassist, Matt Sharp, departed and formed his own band, The Rentals.

For a brief period, it seemed like Sharp made the right decision. I remember cold winter nights, frost on the wind shield and touring around the back roads listening to the enigmatic and beautiful “Friends of P”:

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Grantland’s Battle for the Best Song of the Millennium, the Elite 8

So, over the weekend while I was escaping my 35th birthday Grantland’s contest to find the best song of the century continued without me and without my very valuable commentary on the matter. For the time being, or all time let’s say, I’ll pass over the absurdity of the contest, the fact that it is just a bald attempt to garner some page hits, and the obscenity of the music that has been left out and just focus on celebrating the fact that Beyonce has been swept from the bracket.

There is no way this is a fair fight.

There is no way this is a fair fight.

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