Listening to Soul Coughing songwriter-guitarist Michael Doughty sing is like cranking up the garbage disposal just for fun. No, wait -- it actually sounds as if Doughty has already swallowed the garbage disposal whole. His choppy, nearly spoken-word mode of singing only serves to reinforce the analogy. But that's not to say that Doughty's raspy, caustic voice is so abrasive that it renders the hip-grabbing music of Soul Coughing worthless. In fact, it's a credit to the rest of the group that the band is listenable, even engaging, despite Doughty's raw and in-dire-need-of-some-ointment timbre. It's not as if others before Doughty haven't built successful careers with homely, only-mom-could-love-'em, voices. Check out Dicky Barrett of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Tom Waits, or anyone associated with Alice in Chains for confirmation. Or see Louis Armstrong for further evidence that a ragged-as-gravel voice can even propel a man into luminary status.
Soul Coughing's not quite there yet. The band formed in 1992, composing arty white-hop gems long before Cake and Sugar Ray starting stinking up the airwaves with their lame attempts at Caucasian groove. From swaggering bass lines -- with more attitude than the entire cast of Shaft -- to cryptic, old-timey, and downright cartoonish samples, SC came on the scene with a dark but ultimately fun and innovative mix. Theirs was a peculiar concoction of perverted sample mania, beat poetry, and hip-hop with a jazz bent. (One can almost picture the band backing Mike Myers in the beat-poet parody scene from So I Married an Ax Murderer.)
But it's really the standout rhythm section that redeems Doughty's self-indulgent, pro-nonsense lyricism ("Call up bop and I'm bunting stomach / Koko mop I chop chunking plummet," the songwriter deadpans on "Disseminated," a track from 1996's Irresistible Bliss. Stream-of-consciousness, indeed). The vital members here are bassist Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Yuval Gabay, who could teach Medeski, Martin, and Wood a thing or two about beats so tight they're considered hermetically sealed. And keyboardist-sampler-freak Mark de Gli Antoni's warped pastiche of sounds, treated samples, and bright keyboard flourishes are this band's trademark.
SC's stellar 1994 debut, Ruby Vroom, proved that white men can indeed jump, but that they best not try to jump too high. Yet while the sophomore effort, Irresistible Bliss, was every bit as addictive as its title suggests, by the time the band produced a radio-friendly single (the chart-climbing "Circles"), SC had smacked the pavement, plummeting down in mediocrity with 1998's El Oso in hand. This is unfortunate considering that it was a pure miracle of the major-label marketing gods to sell this downright weird, Knitting Factory-loving, less-than-photogenic group (and that's putting it nicely) to the masses only to disappoint them with a dull, mildly grating album. SC's charm was its off-kilter, off-the-rocker brand of rock, but El Oso contains none of the former charms and substitutes interesting eccentricity for irritating oddball antics. On "Down to This," off Ruby Vroom, Doughty sings, "You get the ankles and I'll get the wrists / It comes down to this." For this show, you get the earplugs and I'll hide the set list.
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