Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Non-standard #1: Soul Coughing

Right, time to give this blog thing a much needed reboot.

Today, I'm going to introduce the first of a number of series that I might actually get around to doing. "Non-standard" is going to be dedicated to bands I enjoy listening too that are some way out of my usual rock/hard rock/metal sphere. The first of these... Soul Coughing.

I'm sure I saw Screenwriters Blues on MAX TV (remember that, kids?) back in the 90's. I thought it was OK, but not much else. For many years, my appreciation of this idiosyncratic New York outfit was limited to the stonking Propellerheads remix of Super Bon Bon, the X-Files soundtrack contribution Unmarked Helicopters and that was about it.

On a whim, I picked up Lust in Phaze: The Greatest Hits on an overseas trip a few years ago. I admitted absolutely loved a few of the tracks: Screenwriters Blues, Super Bon Bon (the original version), The Idiot Kings, Circles but as someone who has mostly been an album listener, there's something about greatest hits compilations that don't quite click with me. They tend to sound like the assortment of tracks that they are, and lack the pacing, structure and finesse of a well-constructed album.

It was actually thanks to good old RateYourMusic - and specifically a Rough Guide poll - that prompted me to reinvestigate a band that I'd discarded as vaguely interesting, but inconsistent. Their albums are actually surprisingly hard to get hold of here in New Zealand - at least on CD - but RealGroovy had a second-hand copy of Ruby Vroom. For the record (excuse the pun), I'll still only ever get something digitally as a last resort, and I far prefer having a physical copy. Notwithstanding that most of my listening is digital, of course, but I think it's just some sort of collector mentality. Anyway, I digress.

What a thoroughly cool, crazy, off-kilter album. I listened to nothing else for the entire weekend. Right from the opening bassline of Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago, I was hooked. Well, admittedly I tend to ignore closing track Janine but I've always dismissed that as a whimsical venture into the use of answering machines to record songs. That aside, this is an album that covers an immense amount of ground in an interesting way, while still remaining true to M. Doughty's vague description of the band as "deep slacker jazz".

There are up-tempo gems, most notably the standoffish, cryptic Casiotone Nation, the lyrics for which reportedly changed every time the song was played live. This makes little or no real difference, of course, because they're largely nonsensical ("the People's Republic of Lemony Fresh... the People's Republic of lumps in my oatmeal", followed by counting to 100 in multiples of 5). Everything I've come to love about this band is so neatly encapsulated within this song though, funky upright bass-lines, punchy and precise drumming, obtuse and occasionally discordant samples, and even more obtuse stream-of-consciousness lyrics.

Of course there are other excellent moments too. Screenwriter's Blues is fine beat poetry over a solid groove, and Down to This is incredibly singalong-worthy right up to the point where you start wondering what the hell M. Doughty is on about with the main chorus of "You get the ankles and I'll get the wrists". Other songs that I only had a passing interest in previously sound far better as part of an album too... the seemingly laidback Sugar Free Jazz sounds far better sandwiched between angular uptempo numbers like Chicago and Casiotone, and equally the discordant, Disney-sampling Bus to Beelzebub engages the listener a lot more when it's placed between the comparatively straight-ahead Blueeyed Devil and True Dreams of Wichita.

Is Ruby Vroom a 5-star record? Not for me. The ending is a little bit weak due to the overly-busy Mr. Bitterness and the gimmicky Janine. But it is a very good album that I will inevitably go back to many times, an album that grooves, obfuscates, cruises and confuses, an album that has moments of absolute brilliance that more than compensate for the occasional misstep (which, let's be fair, is bound to happen with a quirky group like this).

This isn't, of course, Soul Coughing's only album. Irresistible Bliss has some equally great moments: Super Bon Bon (brilliant), The Idiot Kings, and White Girl but overall it's not as consistent - or as addictive - as Ruby. By El Oso, the gems were starting to dry up a little thanks to an increasing number of whimsical cross-genre forays and, correspondingly, a decreasing amount of substance. There's still a few good points (Circles, So Far I Have Not Found the Science), but there's a bit more filler too.

They won't be for everyone - frankly they're a bit too weird for that - but my very radio-friendly girlfriend has requested them in the car on more than one occasion. Personally I reckon they're well worth a listen, repeated listens in fact - although if you end up singing along in public you're likely to get a few odd looks.

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