Songs of the Year—2002

Songs of the Year: “The Only Answer,” Mike Doughty; “Get off,” The Dandy Warhols
Runners Up: “Don’t Know Why”, Norah Jones;  “Goodbye to You,” Michelle Branch
Honorable Mentions: “Clocks,” Coldplay; “Fell in Love With a Girl,” The White Stripes

After the doldrums of 2001, I actually tried to like some new music in 2002. My Elliott Smith obsession got serious; I tried to like Badly Drawn Boy. Some albums were released that I would learn to love much later (by Spoon and Tegan and Sara especially). I never did get very deeply into Badly Drawn Boy. I remember standing on an elevated platform, waiting to change subway lines, listening to a track for the second time and then just unplugging my headphones. I couldn’t connect.

While some of the top music of the year wasn’t terrible (Coldplay’s Rush of Blood to the Head wasn’t bad) the horrors of 2001 lingered (John Mayer; J. Lo; Britney spears). There were too many bad albums by good bands (Maladroit by Weezer, among others) while others released compilation albums (They Might Be Giants) or live albums (Ben Folds) to occupy my time.

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The Shows We’ll Never See

The Younger J and I are true believers in the live show—when it is possible nothing matches the experience of seeing a band perform. Now, while at times the experience is sublime, at other times, it can also have a deleterious effect on your view of a band. Despite the outcome, however, the experience of witnessing a musical performance and, more importantly, absorbing the reaction of other audience members as well, alters your relationship with the music irrevocably.

(I was not a Bare Naked Ladies fan (back in the Gordon days) until I saw them live; their energy and improvisation made me respect a band I would have otherwise ignored. Conversely, my heart was broken at a Dandy Warhols show, but that is a story for another time…)

These days, I leave most of the concert going to my brother. I am old an ornery: most good shows start after my bedtime . (Old, Old Man.) But I do have some experience to draw on: my first show ever was Jerry Garcia; my last concert was the Austin City Limits. There are many and varied acts between.

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Northward: 10 Songs for Chicago

This weekend, while my native state digs itself out of a terrible snowstorm in obscenely cold temperatures, I fly to Chicago for a whirlwind trip to a conference. Yes, for 36 hours I will be separated from wife and kids and surrounded only by the pasty-cold denizens of my field at one of those professional conferences where people nervously check your name tag to see if you’re someone to talk to or not.

I’ve only been to Chicago once before and then I was barely into first grade. My primary memory is that the trip involved my first ever visit to Toys R’ Us. And it blew my little mind. (Maine didn’t have the emporium for another three or four years).

So, in the spirit of my trip, here are 10 songs that have something to do with the Windy City.

“Chicago”, Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens is odd. His music is quirky. But he (and his music) are damn good. The fact that I haven’t mentioned him before only underscores what a hack music-writer I am.

 

“Chicago, We Can Change the World”, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

When we grew up we had a family friend who played old protest and folk songs on his piano and Ovation Celebrity (though, not simultaneously—that would have been too cool). Although we each individually had fall-outs with this man, his musical taste and passion certainly made a tremendous impact on our lives.

This song was one of his standards. I still cannot hear the word Chicago without thinking of this song. The song reacts to the highly political and counter-cultural events of the late 60s when all went to hell at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The raw emotion and timeliness of the song always struck me, even as our friend sucked down Gennessee Cream Ales and chain-smoked in-between renditions of this and favorites by John Prine, Billy Joel and James Taylor.

“Jesus Just Left Chicago,” ZZ Top

No, this isn’t about Kanye.

How could I resist a song by this band with this name?

I have to confess that I really do wish I could grow I beard. I am not saying I could or would grow one to match one of these guys but I suspect that it would protect me against the vicious cold I’ll face this weekend.

“Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago”, Soul Coughing

My strongest memory of this song—by one of my favorite bands—is of the percussionist in my college band discovering that the lyrics developed from some type of drug-fueled existentialist fugue during which Mike Doughty contemplated the nature of what was and was not Chicago.

(And don’t think it is silly. What exactly is a city?)

Fueled ourselves by gin and tonics, there may have been imitative pointing and declaring that, yes indeed, this was not Chicago.

“In the Ghetto”, Elvis Presley (written by Mac Davis)

Yes, this is about Chicago.

True story: I was just in a sandwich place called Dave’s Cosmic subs and in the bathroom there was a fantasy painting of Elvis Presley crooning as Michael Jackson listened reclining on the hood of a car. It was all very creepy.

This ballad is so tortured and corny that it is transcendent. Less transcendent, of course, is the fact that Chicago leads the nation in murders and helps to round out some of our worst income inequality.

“Southside,” Common ft. Kanye West

Like all major US cities, I am sure that the class segregation will keep my conference and all of its attendees comfortably safe from the ghetto and from the working class neighborhoods. It is safe to say that the conference is not on the Southside of the city.

(Have I dared to mentioned that my respect for Kanye grows with each crazy thing he does? He is a performance artist.)

“If You Leave Me Now”, Chicago

One cannot have a list of songs about Chicago without including one by the band Chicago. Seriously, I am sure there is a law about this somewhere.

Chicago is one of those big-sounding, schmaltzy bands that I could care less about—the very over-produced and maudlin character that makes me avoid many bands from the time period. I hope I don’t feel the same way about the city.

“Chicago at Night,” Spoon

I haven’t talked much about Spoon on this blog, but it is a band that has great rhythms and writes some great songs. This album (poorly named Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga) wasn’t great, but it was still pretty damn good. I don’t remember spending any time in Chicago at night…but then again, I was barely reading the last time I was there.

 

“Tonight, Tonight,” Smashing Pumpkins

This song was written in Chicago and recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I had the double album (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness) but it was not oft used and I think my brother took it from me. Smashing Pumpkins are one of those alt-Chameleon bands that could have done almost anything.

At night in Chicago, I will probably be drinking too much. But I won’t be melancholy (or hanging out with dogs). This video, by the way, is fucked up.

 

“Train to Chicago,” Mike Doughty Cover

My brother has written about how much he loves this song. It is a beautiful song and a great cover by Doughty. If I had endless stretches of time, I might take the train North to Chicago. There is something old-world and peaceful about a good train ride. If anything, it doesn’t have the frantic pace and madness of air travel.

So, my brother, while I fly north and endure the actual and metaphorical cold, perhaps you can let me know which songs I have missed.

(Oh, and wish our sister a Happy Birthday).

Best Albums of 2013 (According to Math)

Note: On this first day of the new year, we bring you a post from yet Another J, my college roommate, economist extraordinaire, and runner supreme. Not only has he been kind enough to provide musical hints that have turned into blog posts, but he has also been patient enough to tolerate his stories being fictionalized and told in other posts. Here, he tries to bring some rigor to the squishy practice of annual rankings. Read it. Love it. Debate it. Or something like that.

After three years of reading this blog and seeing my adventures, superior musical taste, and mediocre musical talent alluded to many times, I have finally taken the plunge and decided to contribute in a public way. The ElderJ has asked me to contribute many times and I have started many posts in my head but the topics seemed either too small or obscure to use to introduce myself to the thousands (millions? hopefully double digits?) of readers of this blog. So I decided to start with something more interesting: a music rating algorithm to rate the top albums of 2013.

I wanted to be like all the cool kids and create a list of my favorite albums of 2013. However, that is much harder than it seems, especially this year. It seemed like there were many good to great albums released in 2013, but very few truly stood out. My top few albums were obvious, but what about albums 4 through 100? I needed a way to quantify the merits of each album to accurately rank them.

The algorithm, a fancy term for math used to impress people, came to me driving to work on a random snowy day. The idea is simple: the best albums ever made consist of the best songs, the worst albums are made of the worst songs, and all of the rest fall in between. Between the best and worst albums ever exist albums that have one transcendent song and 12 other tracks of garbage, but also solid albums that do not have one “great” song but 12 “very good” songs. The algorithm provides a way to quantify that so that I could see the relative strength of each album.

To rate albums, the Music Ranking Algorithm factors in the percentage of the album that is good (i.e. the artist’s peak of the album) and how great that peak is as well as how much of an album is filler (or at a lower level than the best stuff) and how good that is. I also included a subjective “critical adjustment” to factor in how well the album met (from my perspective) expectations/hype, the introduction of new styles or elements, and how the album fits along the artist’s growth path. Sometimes releasing the “same” album twice is just what I want, but other times I expect something more or different, so I wanted to be able to account for that. When written out, the algorithm looks like this::

Rating = ((% Peak x Peak Rating)+(% Filler x Filler Rating)) x Critical Adjustment

The Peak and Filler Ratings each use a scale of 0 to 10, where:

0 = I could not finish the song because I was running to the bathroom to puke

1-2 = Will never listen to this again

3-4 = Might keep it in my iPod, but will likely skip it if it comes on.

5-6 = Will probably keep it in my iPod and may listen to it if it comes on.

7-8 = This will be in my rotation this month. Will listen or skip depending on mood.

8-9 = This will be in my rotation this year. May sometimes skip the track.

10 = This will still be in my rotation several years from now. Will almost never skip the track.

This one got a 10.

The Critical Adjustment Rating is based on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is low, 7 is high, and 4 is neutral, and the rest is…subjective. A score of 1 creates a critical adjustment factor of 0.97 (or -3%) and a score of 7 adds 3%, with the other possible scores falling in between. This allows a subjective tweak to the rating, but doesn’t change the overall score substantially.

With all of that out of the way, below are the top 17 albums I have listened to in 2013, fed through the algorithm. (This list consists of the albums that I have listened to more than a few times, so that I feel like I can give a solid review.)

1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

2. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse

3. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

This song obviously isn’t on the Electric Lady, but is just an example of how fun Janelle Monae is live.

4. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium

5. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety

6. Mike Doughty – Circles…

7. The Head and the Heart – Let’s Be Still

8. Kopecky Family Band – Kids Raising Kids

9. The Mowgli’s – Waiting for the Dawn

10. Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends

I really like this song, but the video is very creepy.

11. Little Green Cars – Absolute Zero

12. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

13. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

14. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

15. HAIM – Days Are Gone

16. The Dodos – Carrier

17. Phoenix – Bankrupt!

Looking at the list, it seems like the algorithm did a pretty good job. The albums fall into an order that fits my appraisal of them and there are only a few surprises. I loved the Vampire Weekend album and thought it was one of the best I’ve heard in years. As the Elder J has mentioned, the latest Frightened Rabbit cd is not their best, but is very good. I really like Janelle Monae’s album and keep finding new favorite parts. Autre Ne Veut has some very strong songs but is scattered, so I’m really looking forward to his next album. Mike Doughty recreated some of his best Soul Coughing songs with mixed success. The Head and the Heart and Kopecky Family Band were both pleasant finds for me this year and both have a similar boy/girl vocal mix. The Mowgli’s, Portugal. The Man, and Little Green Cars are all fun and have some strong songs good for listening to with your windows down. Pearl Jam’s latest was solid, as usual. I was disappointed in the latest output from both the National and Arcade Fire. The former didn’t take enough risks, the latter took too many. I have enjoyed most of Phoenix’s work in the past, but Bankrupt was pretty terrible.

I was most surprised with the rankings of HAIM and the Dodos. HAIM’s songs are just pure sugar coated rock, but some of their songs are really really good and really really catchy. The Dodos’ latest album was one of their strongest, but apparently lacked enough truly great moments for the robot to rank it higher.

I’m looking forward to putting new albums through this test to see where they rank and to fine tune the process. Any ideas?

Thanks to the J’s for letting me share their platform. I already have some topics for future posts that should be slightly more exciting than a “best of” list. Until then, Happy New Year!

Top Songs of (my) Year 2013

FatherTimeSomehow, another year has turned (as the Greeks would put it) and I find myself already contemplating writing retrospective and best of the year reviews. My sense of awe and disbelief derives not from actual disbelief since I can distinctly remember my life last year and where I was when I wrote the restrospectives of a year ago. No, my surprise comes from how fast it has all gone .

The alacrity of our passing years is in part perspective (the more you do something the fast it seems to go; objectively speaking, time itself has not been altered). And yet, in addition, the rapid transit of time is still accelerated more by our myriad modern distractions (I’m talking to you, 24 news cycle, twitter, social networks, etc.) and the busyness of my time of life—early career, young children, somewhat lame blog…

Is the enjoyment of life necessarily limited by speed and quantity? My suspicion is that the answer is yes. But the fact is that I don’t really want to contemplate the answer, because the only solution is to give stuff up. And I wouldn’t know where to begin. The fullness of my life is a blessing more than a curse.

Today isn’t about the busyness or the blog. I want to celebrate the fact that I still take time to enjoy music and that another year has brought me another group of songs I will always love. So, here are the ten songs I will most associate this year with in no particular order.

“New Distributor Cap”, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities

Some how I missed this alt-folk band years back. When I discovered it when I was writing a review of the Breeders’ Last Splash, I fell into one of those “wish I had been a different person reveries”. This song is sweet, and true. The central conceit—that the singer will fix the car for the girl he likes—is just so simple and universal as to be adorable. The fact that the music and recording is low-fi only brings into relief the greatness of the song even more.

(And this made me promise myself that I’d finally get around to writing about Small Rock. Just next year)

 “Best of Friends,” Palma Violets

I wrote about this song earlier. I listened to it every day for two weeks. Hell, I’m listening to it now. It is one of those songs that makes the rest of the album pale in comparison. It made me rethink Rancid. (And I’ll write about that next year.) It would be higher on the list if I had convinced my wife and children to like it.

“Dreams of Cannibalism”, Typhoon

When The Only D called me out on Typhoon and predicted I would like it, I was skeptical, but that crazy guy knows me too well. I love the album White Lighter. I love this song because it is so characteristic of how creative, dynamic and just damn musical this artist is. His songs are heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

I have shed a tear listening to this music while running in the wee hours of the mourning. Thankfully, it was always in the dark.

Late March, Death March,” Frightened Rabbit

I am going to cheat on this one and add in two more songs. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, and “Twist”. Earlier in the year I wrote how it would be impossible for me to write about Frightened Rabbit. I haven’t changed my opinion, but I have grown to love this band even more. The group’s most recent release (Pedestrian Verse) isn’t their best, but it is still pretty damn good.  I have gone days with the line “like mother said, less heart more head” from this song bouncing around in my head. It is now nearly a mantra.

“It’s Time,” Imagine Dragons

Yeah, I wrote about this song. Then, my children fell in love with it. Then it exploded and Imagine Dragons turned up everywhere. (I still don’t believe that LeBron James listens to the band.) My kids call this the “clapping song”. When my daughter sings along with the last line “I’m never changing who I am”, it chokes me up. I won’t lie.

“Super Bon Bon.” Mike Doughty (from the release, Circles)

I never thought I would get so excited about Mike Doughty again, but I was really interested to listen to this release of Soul Coughing ‘covers’. When my children heard it, they loved it and were at first perplexed by the fact that there was another “Super Bon Bon” that sounded different. They named the original recording “Drum Super Bon Bon” and this one “Small Super Bon Bon.” I play whichever they ask for. So, Mike Doughty, you made the list.

“Closer,” Tegan and Sara

When Tegan and Sara released their new album I did my usual contrarian thing and reviewed what I hold to be their best album (The Con) instead. But this song has grown on me enoguh that I listen to it a few times a week. I love these artists. I will probably buy every recording they ever make.

“Let’s Go,” Matt and Kim

Matt and Kim have always been a bit of a curiosity for me. I think that they are maknig dance music but I really like to run to it. It is memorable but not always that deep. This song is a little more complex than some of their numbers. The real reason it made it to the list is that I have ehard the song 20 times in the past five days. My daughter fell in love with it and I cannot resist when she asks for a song.

“Some Nights”, Night Riot (Used to be PK)

I grew obsessed with the song “Berelain” which I discovered just around the time I finshed the final book of the Wheel of Time series. I actually like this song more. How did it end up as the penultimate song to this list? Every time I hear it, I think, hey, I like this song. And, every time, it seems like a new revelation. That’s a pretty neat thing in a time when repetition kills everything.

“Every Time she Turns Around it’s her Birthday”, Caribou

I have written about this song a few times. I love it. But that’s not enough. No, the progressive and somewhat unstructured music is not just entertaining but it is also transformative. I haven’t heard a song that makes me feel like my state is altered in a long time. This one makes me feel, well, different. Listen.

Happy new year. May next year be even better.

Call and Response: Religious Songs

As we come to the high frenzy of this holiday season, I’d like to turn to one of my favorite exchanges from the past year, when my brother and I stopped being silly and got a little serious about, you know, religion and stuff. It seems that this is the season for that sort of thing, right? So, this is a re-post, but updated and just right for the longer nights and the colder days.

In last year’s honest, and soul-baring post, my brother daringly ventured into one of the two subjects verboten at dinner tables and water-coolers throughout the country—religion (we crossed the politics line a few times in the past few months, so why not get this one over with?). I responded with an ambling, sometimes senseless, and mostly unclear comment.

My brother’s moment of clarity and its relation to music, however, deserves more thought. It deserves more time. It deserves a weighted and patient consideration. Yet, I fear, I may not be the right person to do this. As I said in response to my brother, music is the one thing that has made me feel a sense of something greater (unlike writing, music can be powerfully communal). Despite these feelings, I remain skeptical and unsure whether feeling something beyond yourself has anything to do with the divine.

“Down to the River to Pray”, Alison Krause

This beautiful song has been in my head off and on since I first heard it on the soundtrack to O, Brother Where art Thou. The fact that the “Sirens” sing this song in the movie points to an uncomfortable connection between Homer’s seductive and dangerous creatures and religious music…

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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.

Running Songs

Another week, another re-post. I am putting this up today because @jake_turbo and I are running a half-marathon together. Here are all the songs we won’t be listening to. But don’t worry about us, there will be beer at the end.

 

A while back twitter directed me to an article claiming that Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard was lying about his song list for running. Because I am a narcissist, this made me immediately thing about my running list—it is several hundred songs long and not all of them are actually that good to run to.

I run a bit—I don’t call myself a runner because I have never run ‘officially’ or in any public capacity, but I do run enough to know the names of different shoes, the arguments for and against going barefoot, the ideal amount of hydration before, during and after runs, etc .etc. I do it because I enjoy it, because you can’t play basketball for three hours a day when you’re a real adult, and because my grandfather and father died young.

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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.

Bad Band Names (and good ones?)

The subject I am about to touch upon–and don’t be distracted by the brevity with which I treat it–is one that is close to my heart because I was in two bands for nearly four years each and both  had rather terrible names. How do I know that the names were bad? When people ask me what the names of my bands were, I am too embarrassed by them to even utter them. In fact, I often find myself saying a silent prayer of thanks for the fact that both of my bands disappeared before the full rise of the internet. It is very, very hard to connect my proper name with those terrible, awful names.

This band has some pretty good beats and a rather tough sound for some ladies. Where are they now? While a rose by any other name still sounds as sweet, words have intrinsic attractiveness based on their sound and that sound’s relationship to the language at large. If a thorned flower were called ‘turd’, would we have bands named the Stone Turds and Guns N’ Turds? The sound matters.

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