Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Soul Coughing: Nonsense and Sensibility (1996)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

M. Doughty, the sandpaper-voiced lead singer of the New York quartet known as Soul Coughing, is happy with where his band currently finds itself.

Signed to Slash Records (the launching pad of such vitally American, ear-to-the-tracks bands as X, Los Lobos, and the Blasters), hand-picked by Dave Matthews himself to open shows on the East Coast leg of his band's current tour, and featured on the top-selling X-Files soundtrack, Songs in the Key of X, Soul Coughing has made the transition from the underground to the overground in record time.

Make that CD time. Sales of the band's recently released longplayer, Irresistible Bliss, have already equaled the sales of Ruby Vroom, their 1994 debut. And unlike some left-of-center band leaders, Doughty loses no sleep over selling out.

"No, no, no. That's bullshit," he laughs. "I want the dosh--the money--as much as anybody else. To these indie-rock bands that talk about how they're going to stay independent and true to themselves, I say, 'Gee, you seem to be playing a vintage Fender Mustang. Where exactly did that come from?' As long as the money comes from Mom, I guess it's all right, but not from the evil behemoth of the recording industry!"

Doughty's view of filthy lucre is as straightforward as the music that he, Mark De Gli Antoni (keyboard sampler), Sebastian Steinberg (upright bass or "bull fiddle"), and Yuval Gabay (drums) make. With the exception of an occasional sample or overdub, Soul Coughing generates its swinging, seismic rumble live in the studio. This stripped-down approach makes them unique among the small but growing crowd of post-Beastie Boys groove diggers intent on keeping the hip-hop vibe alive in non-hip-hop contexts.

It also allows them to make the most of that most precious up-and-coming-band commodity: studio time. No sooner, for instance, had they arranged for the Halo Benders' Steve Fisk to produce their Songs in the Key of X contribution ("Unmarked Helicopters") than they found themselves with enough time on their hands to get the songs "White Girl" and "4 Out of 5"--both of which ended up on Irresistible Bliss--on tape, as well.

"I talked to him on the phone," Doughty recalls, "and he said, 'I booked three days in the studio for us to do this song.' I said, 'You mean to track and mix, right?' He said, 'No, just to track.' I said, 'Dude, we'll get this done in, like, an hour!' But he said, 'No, I think we'd better play it safe. Three days.' We got there and finished the song in, like, two takes, so we thought, 'O.K., maybe we should use this extra studio time."

Like Ruby Vroom's "Casiotone Nation," "4 Out of 5" takes math equations and turns them into song lyrics. In "Casiotone Nation" Doughty made a chorus out of counting by five's to one hundred; in "4 Out of 5" he makes skewed romance metaphors out of basic addition and multiplication drills.

"That's the Schoolhouse Rock/Dr. Seuss influence coming through," laughs Doughty. "I love the way jargon sounds. Scientific words, mathematics words, algebraic words--it's more the texture than the actual equations." In other words, as their name alone suggests, Soul Coughing is not afraid to risk nonsense in their search for the perfect, emotionally resonant vibe. Or as Doughty told a Warner publicist not long ago, "I see Soul Coughing as this sort of V.U. meter with Heartbreak on the left and Nonsense on the right."

The nonsense--what with the jargon-mad lyrics on top and the soulfully coughing grooves beneath--is obvious. But heartbreak? "At heart every Soul Coughing song is a love song," Doughty explains. "Even '4 Out of 5': 'Her knees thrust in one direction like a symbol of math, / a symbol meaning greater than, / I come recommended by four out of five'--it's a come-on. But I always veer into this skittish use of language. The nature of my attention span is such that after four love-song lines, I start thinking, 'All right, let's get back to the non-sense again.'"

In composing songs for Irresistible Bliss, the combo found a kindred spirit in the late Raymond Scott, the composer who developed a "skittish" blend of Big Band and jazz in the 1930s and '40s that would cause people to refer to him ever after as "that cartoon-music guy." So closely did Doughty and the boys identify with Scott that they built one song, "Disseminated," around Scott's "The Penguin," even going so far as to give him co-composer credit.
"He was just an incredibly loopy composer," explains Doughty. "His stuff is so skittish. It just jaunts around. He was like a weird Duke Ellington in a way."

And Soul Coughing is like a weird Raymond Scott in a way. So it goes.

Whether the band will ever end up supplying the soundtracks to hundreds of cartoons, films, and TV shows and thus influencing generations of children of all ages remains to be seen.

That people--Dave Matthews included--are finding Soul Coughing's bliss more irresistible than ever does not.

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