Pop-Ambiguity

“I have climbed highest mountain / I have run through the fields / Only to be with you”
“I still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, U2

For years I have contemplated what I still see as one of the greatest three-song sequences on any rock album: the first three songs on U2’s 1987 release The Joshua Tree (“Where the Streets Have No Name”; “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; and “With or Without You”). Love them or hate them (and I suspect once most of us get past any U2 antipathy created by the last decade there will be more love), these songs are immediately recognizable and eminently successful.

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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.

Pop-Ambiguity

“I have climbed highest mountain / I have run through the fields / Only to be with you”
“I still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, U2

For years I have contemplated what I still see as one of the greatest three-song sequences on any rock album: the first three songs on U2’s 1987 release The Joshua Tree (“Where the Streets Have No Name”; “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; and “With or Without You”). Love them or hate them (and I suspect once most of us get past any U2 antipathy created by the last decade there will be more love), these songs are immediately recognizable and eminently successful.

Continue reading