Rennes, France 03.12.94 – Soul CoughingTokyo, Japan 03.02.97 – Soul CoughingBerlin/Amsterdam 1997 – Soul Coughing New York, NY 16.08.99 – Soul CoughingLive Rarities – Soul Coughing
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There are so many things I sometimes want to shout about Soul Coughing that it's occasionally hard to know where to begin. Maybe just this: they were a great band and more people should listen to them even though they broke up four years ago. The five new archival releases from the increasingly cool folks at Kufala Recordings demonstrate why. Even after listening to Soul Coughing's three studio albums pretty religiously for the last five years, these live discs reveal a side to the band that I wasn't previously aware of (though suspected): they were a live act.
What the double-disc albums – two discs worth of '94, four from '97, two from '99, and a pair compiling live rarities – do, in total, is not to show that Soul Coughing jammed (which they did, occasionally), but that they used the stage as an active workshop. It's like they did it out of necessity. Bassist Sebastian Steinberg, drummer Yuval Gabay, and sampler wizard Mark De Gli Antoni were drawn from the improvising scene around the old Knitting Factory, in Manhattan's SoHo. They tinkered endlessly. When played live, the band's perfect pop songs expanded and contracted with inserted vocal sections, alternate samples, and arrangement tricks, sounding not only quite different from album to concert, but really different from performance to performance.
"Screenwriter's Blues" – a perfect narrative fantasia by singer/guitarist M. Doughty about the glittering romance of Los Angeles ("It is 5 am and the sun has charred the other side of the world and come back to us, and painted the smoke over our heads an imperial violet, it is 5 am, and you are listening… to Los Angeles") and driven by an unimaginably majestic and pleasing horn sample as if from some Hollywood epic – went through several distinct incarnations. An early version (from a '92 soundboard circulating on the web) has the band playing a plodding beat with Doughty reciting an early draft of the poem. It didn't work. Doughty rightly excised several well-written lines. The song was eventually carved into the austere number found on Ruby Vroom and featured on the Rennes, France show from December 3rd,1994.
By 1997 – and the discs from Tokyo and Berlin – the song had mutated again. Beginning with a long ghostly ambience abated by twinkling bells, Doughty begins to recite the lyrics. The low moan slowly contracts and, when the chorus of the song kicks in, the horns suddenly pop into actual time and one realizes that it's been the same Hollywood sample all along. For the rest of the arrangement, the band toggles between ambience and full-force grooving. For the 1999 edition – recorded at their second-to-last gig ever, at Manhattan's Supper Club – they had changed the song even more.
And there are nearly boundless surprises, albeit not always so dramatic, to be found throughout the 10 discs. Like Mark Twain's The Gilded Age or John Dos Passos’ America, Soul Coughing’s music is an intentionally encyclopedic sweep of the popular culture in which they existed — in Soul Coughing’s case, the last 10 years of the 20th century. They were a pop band, through and through. Though Doughty dropped occasional linear experiments like "Screenwriter’s" and "True Dreams of Wichita" (also from Ruby Vroom), a lot of his Soul Coughing-era inspiration was pulled from hip-hop and reggae — pleasing streams of whimsical nonsense ("I got the souped-up car and what you call / Tripping on the boom-bap etymological / I ride the fader and I ride it low / I’m gonna slip into the field like Han Solo" – "Rolling") that convey their meanings differently. There’s seriously no reason this stuff, with a little sonic updating, couldn’t stand up next to Usher or J-Kwon or Chingy.
At the same time, though, there was a deep intellectual richness to Soul Coughing's music encompassing various avant-garde traditions. On the 1994 rendition of "Sugar Free Jazz," Steinberg lays down a freely fluid jazz groove while De Gli Antoni plays samples of factory soundscapes and crying seagulls and cool jazz horns and Doughty improvises poetry that manages to be completely goofy, but also completely self-aware. It is post-modern pop at its best and provides a model that other bands would do well to study. Soul Coughing drew from the contemporary and personalized it.
They knew it, too. "Oh, by the way," Doughty says as the band counts off "Moon Sammy" on the France show, "we're Soul Coughing. Who the fuck are you?" They are cocky, assured, and fantastic. Their time was limited, though. In early 2000, they succumbed to that classic triumvirate of band destroyers: their record company fucked them, their singer developed an addiction, and Ricky Martin borrowed one of their hooks for a hit of his own (Soul Coughing's "Super Bon Bon" became his "Shake Your Bon Bon"). They moved with such a single-minded momentum that it's hard to imagine them regaining it should they ever choose to get over their personal differences and regroup.
Doughty has well demonstrated his doubt in the sanctity of the group's mission with his solo excursions of late. But, goddamn it, in the same way that it'd be nice have Frank Zappa back to get his take on the Bush Administration, it'd be awfully nice to see/hear Soul Coughing's musical take on the self-referential madness that seems to have gripped popular culture by the balls of late. Given Soul Coughing's own predilections, perhaps it would only be fitting for some intrepid musician to create a mash-up of Doughty's acoustic material and Gaby's jungle-heavy UV Ray project. 'Til then, this is what we've got.