Soul Coughing was a unique band in a time where the word “alternative” was already being washed into a particular style of mainstream pop rock.
There was an art-rock scene in New York in the ‘90s. It seems like one of those statements that even those who have no familiarity with the city would simply take for granted. But if you’ve heard either of the two most well-known singles from Soul Coughing, then you’ve experienced that scene in some small measure. Emerging from it were four band members, most of whom would go on to moderately successful but unrelated careers in music. They met in a nightclub called The Knitting Factory, and they made a modest three records before calling it quits. All of those records were unique, memorable, genuinely good and, curiously, have never seemed to inspire any copycats. It’s hard to imagine anyone succeeding at repeating their formula simply because it was so unusual and risky. Their growth and popularity scaled organically from the release of “Super Bon Bon” and thanks to the help of many television placements over the years. Exposure kept them going. Their most successful single, “Circles,” came from their final record, El Oso, which was released on Slash / Warner Bros. Records on September 29th, 20 years ago. It was their finest and most commercially accessible work, despite its complete lack of compromise.
While the previous two records were an exercise in refinement from experimental jazz and beat poetry to squeaky, improvisational alternative rock anthems, it was on El Oso where the band seemed to land in the pocket — finally figuring out what it was that they were best at and exploiting every minute of the 13 songs to convey it to their audience. Album opener “Rolling” has all the makings of a familiar rock track beginning with a fast percussion drum vaguely influenced by drum and bass rhythms of the time. That rhythm is typically referred to in drum and bass circles as a “roller.” While it doesn’t sound like an electronic or techno release of any sort, the band, and in particular this album, had a clear influence from the world of urban music in the ‘90s.
Despite the odd and quirky keyboard sampling on tracks like “Misinformed,” it’s really Mike Doughty’s unique, repetitive rhymes and writing style which were Soul Coughing’s signature. The drums could pound out a rock rhythm while the keyboard simply made melody with sampled segments and a sound buffet of oddities. Somehow, put together under Doughty’s side-show fascinating approach to vocals, the result was tracks which were at first abrasive but on repeat listens grew like a mold. “Circles” was an exception. While instrumentally it matched the pattern of all of their other songwriting, Doughty’s vocals take a marked turn to something comprehensible and accessible. “Circles” was a pop song through and through, and while it was reported that producer Tchad Blake hated the song and recommended it not be released, it went on to become their most popular and well-known.
“Blame” bounces into a barber-shop quartet and scat aesthetic while once again mixing elements of drum and bass. Doughty crosses a line with this track that really shouldn’t have worked but did — by all accounts. Every verse plays out as though it were a sample in a dance or club track. Doughty’s talent for a turn of phrase and a theatrical delivery carries so much weight on this record that “St. Louise is Listening” just seems to beckon repeat listens, which never get boring. While the meaning of the lyrics is at best questionable and at worst incomprehensible, it manages to be pretentious in a playful, almost unwitting way. It never seems to matter what the lyrics are when all of their records are viewed best as deliberately and sometimes hilariously awkward experience. “Maybe I’ll Come Down,” for example, is a lazy, plodding ballad number relying heavily on tiny keyboard riffs and a very strong bass line. Doughty’s unique brand of funky, monotonous vocals switches abruptly from minimal funk territory to a slowly building crescendo about which the band is clearly familiar but the listener is kind of left out of the joke.
After this record came out, the band parted ways over disputes around credit for what sounds like a general realization that sometimes the same creativity that fuels history’s most memorable music also makes it inaccessible to the pap-consuming mainstream audiences. You could dance to El Oso, you could groove to El Oso and you could have it playing in the background at your dinner party and have everyone ask you who it was. The strange keyboard outbursts of Sebastien Steinberg fit in better on this record than they ever had before. Used less like instruments and more like embellishments, they allowed the stand-up bass, percussion and Doughty’s rhymes to stand out front where they ought to be.
El Oso was a playful record that sounded very meaningful at least in terms of melody, if not lyrically. The lyrics were fun and easy to sing along to. Album closer “The Incumbent” sounds like it’s native New York at dawn, looping the sound of a bass guitar against some shakers and other percussion samples. The entire proceeding has an unstoppable and powerful groove to it, but it’s an album that just retained enough of the New York art scene to be considered an odd experiment by the uninformed. Those who are a little more adventurous would remember El Oso as the final and most successful end of that experiment — or perhaps the one that brought them “Circles.” Doughty would remember it is the record that ensured his entrance into a successful solo career long after the band had disappeared into the curiosity pile of local record bins.
No matter how you think about it, Soul Coughing was a unique band in a time where the word “alternative” was already being washed into a particular style of mainstream pop rock and nothing seemed new anymore. El Oso was surely an indicator of what might have been a longer run of successful records. Instead, we’re left with a very special memory.