Let’s take a break from the writeups about death and stuff and instead talk about ideas like second births. In my little world of music, there are hardly any more striking examples of musical re-invention than that of Mike Doughty, former lead singer of “deep slacker jazz” group Soul Coughing, who went from fronting the most legitimately “cool” band ever to have an entirely unique sound, while himself being fronted by heroin use, to being the cleaned-up, middle-aged solo acoustic troubadour who is buddy-buddy with the stalest, most lifeless musician this side of John Mayer: Dave Matthews.
Believe it or not, in both capacities Mike Doughty is the bomb-diggity, and I’ve waited 362 entries to use that retarded phrase, so let’s talk about one of his recent albums, Haughty Melodic:
It’s kind of hard for me to state at this point that I find Doughty’s drug-feuled Soul Coughing days to be the highest point of his career (eh heh heh, “highest”), but I do find myself more frequently running back to my Soul Coughing albums after hearing one of Doughty’s solo albums. It took me almost this entire year to figure out why, but now the answer seems so simple: heroin is awesome.
Not really, I think the reason that I enjoyed Soul Coughing so much is not because of Mike Doughty, but because Soul Coughing, to me, is the booming yet eloquent drumming of Yuval Gabay combined with the god-like upright bass playing of the godly-named Sebastian Steinberg. The sample-heavy noise and Doughty’s rhythmic stream of spoken/sung non sequitors was more of another instrument, to be enjoyed rather than analyzed.
When Soul Coughing broke up at the beginning of this crappy decade, Doughty finally kicked the horse and started writing straight songs. Of course, Doughty is a better songwriter than most, with an especially keen sense of very specific imagery (one must be up on one’s brand names, for instance). In that sense, he’s a very literary songwriter, and the lack of a band really showcases that. Another thing that changed was his voice; by the time Haughty Melodic rolled around, his voice was still the nasally growl that tended to drop the pitch of a note at the end of every line (the opposite of a lot of indie acts who prefer to raise the pitch, as if asking a question), but now he’s singing notes, protracted ones, even!
The thing that was hinted at but never fully realized except in brief moments with Soul Coughing is that Doughty is a master of carving out a melody that will stick with you forever without having to try so hard. Perhaps it’s his signature singing style, but I can tell you that I know every hook of Haughty Melodic and almost none of the words, so that’s saying something I suppose.
When Doughty went out on his own to continue making music, he was, for the most part, literally on his own. From writing and recording all of the songs by his lonesome to driving himself and a guitar to all his gigs, where he personally sold 20,000 copies of his albums in the form of CD-Rs with paper sleeves, it would seem as if Doughty was a truly “independent” artist… until you realize that he was actually depending on fans he already had with Soul Coughing, but that’s neither here nor there.
Eventually, Mike ran into another musician who goes by the name of Dave Matthews. Now, don’t ask me why, but Dave Matthes is a rich and famous musician who is a big fan of Doughty’s. Upon finding out about his truly “solo” career, Dave invited Mike to finish the album he was working on at the time at his ATO studio. Doughty did so, and enlisted a full band, and that’s the album you see before you.
I suppose what I like best about the album, besides that Haughty Melodic is an anagram for “Mike Doughty”, is the string of hits that start it off. The first song is something called “Looking At The World From The Bottom Of A Well“, and despite being mainly composed of two chords, is a surprisingly “full” sounding song thanks to the stack of guitars and other band sounds that appear. Besides the chorus, which kind of gives this idea that it’s about drug-kicking, the lyrics don’t make a whole lot of sense, but the melody is so infectious that I dare you not to sing it to yourself after seeing that video.
The same can be said about “Unsingable Name”, which is already a clever idea to build a song around. I am hopelessly curious what name is a “sweet and plain unsingable name”, but the song never lets on. It does say things like “I want to be your absolute ultimate”, which, despite being a straight phrase, is something that’s very Doughty for him to say.
There are some other interesting moments on the album too, there’s a rather sparse song called “White Lexus” about the eschewing of fancy goods and introducing confused Soul Coughing fans to the perplexing sound of a steel guitar backing up Mike Doughty. That is followed immediately by a second car song (no surprise, cars have been a frequently-visited theme in Doughty’s songwriting for ages now) called “American Car” which is more of a celebratory thing. I guess this album is against Japanese cars or something? Who knows.
There is a protest song called “Bustin’ Up A Starbucks” that is kind of great, even if I happen to be fond of that particular coffee place. Unfortunately, I have yet to clearly understand just what is being protested in the song, something about trade I guess. I’m kind of dumb with these movements.
“His Truth Is Marching On” is kind of an odd one, because I never thought Mike Doughty would be the type to do a straight Christian song. In that way that makes Doughty so unique, even in the face of such standard tunes, is that this is also the first Christian song I’ve heard that drops the f-bomb. How my love for this guy grows and grows.
Doughty released another album after this one called Golden Delicious, and between these two albums, I had been wanting to write about Doughty’s solo stuff since January, which explains why this album isn’t anything profound or special, but I am writing about it at the last minute. Haughty Melodic is definitely worth a shot, even if Dave Matthews was involved.