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Published: 2002/02/15
by Jesse Jarnow

Mike Doughty, The Knitting Factory, NYC- 2/14

NYC ROLL-TOP: Polaroid on the Wall

I normally spend Valentine's Day with a small stuffed sloth and a copy of
Transformer by Lou Reed. The sloth went AWOL about a year ago, though
and Transformer… well, I still listened to that twice. I also added
what I hope will become a new tradition: Mike Doughty.

I'd never seen Doughty perform in New York before. I'd caught his act in
Portland and Cleveland, but never on his – and my – home turf. On the
comfortable mainstage of the Knitting Factory, his lyrics revealed
themselves cleanly under the light of a shared urban experience. His songs,
self-proclaimed "small rock" – several new numbers scattered across a set of
Soul Coughing songs and selections from the solo Skittish – are drawn
from New York's geography: Delancey and Varick Streets, the F train, The
Slope; a perpetual walk with a dim gait and a head full of clouded thoughts.

Yeah, and he's just a bozo with an acoustic guitar, but there really
is something to that format, the unbreakable connection between mind
and hands with no band necessary to translate the thought. Like the original
small-rocker, Jonathan Richman, Doughty has seen the possibilities of a full
ensemble and has – for the moment, anyway – chosen to apply the dynamics to
something quieter. Soul Coughing songs which previously reveled in the
four-equal-parts orchestration were stripped to minimalist trappings: subtly
changing rhythmic accompaniment and the voice of the singer.

A common complaint about Doughty's solo performances is that all of his
songs are backed with the same rhythms. While this is true to an extent,
it's something that never bothered me, and still doesn't. Sounding a bit
like reggae with a little more urgently drunken momentum, it is a unique
voice — and one that is tied with beautiful knots to the meticulously
chosen breaks in the lyrics: "Your Polaroid is on the wall / Stuck in the
crack between the door and door frame / Trapped in the middle of some laugh
/ Some drunken joke a friend of yours was telling" (from "Thank You, Lord,
For Sending Me The F-Train"). The combination makes the songs necessary and
relevant and more than worth devoting attention to.

At least they do for me, at least they do in New York. I'd never put much
thought into it before, but I now wonder how much sense some of this stuff
makes outside of the context of Manhattan. I mean, I loved Soul Coughing
long before I moved to Brooklyn, but the amount of clarity with which the
songs unraveled last night was truly marvelous, and I can't help but wonder
if it was a direct correlation with my new familiarity with Doughty's world,
with our world. As a listener, it doesn't matter. It could well be
that Doughty's music speaks (and is designed) with a certain
across-the-board level of intimacy, and I choose to translate it through
that particular element of the lyrics. Certainly, there seems to be some
evidence to support this interpretation.

Doughty is a wonderful and witty showman. Through this, he creates a bond
that might be described as "the fake private" (to borrow a phrase from
Jonathan Lethem).. At the Knit show (as well as the two other shows I've
caught), he worked the crowd with a strange mix of high-status smarm and
good-natured smirk; replying to every verbal volley from the crowd with a
perfectly timed response. Basically, he was a cool motherfucker about it all
— a big-brother like motherfucker.

During the set, which clocked in at just over an hour, Doughty dusted off a
fair bit of the Soul Coughing repertoire — which, if not getting old,
certainly has the potential to. The four new songs Doughty played were
characteristic, though seem to push slightly in a new direction. Though I
love hearing the old stuff, they are more a warm comfort than anything else,
and I find myself wanting to wrap around new material. There's no reason why
the show can't expand to include both — more new stuff without letting go
of the old, perfectly realized tunes. The set was short enough as it is.

There's still something vital about the old songs, though, even if I have
heard them dozens of times. Soul Coughing never really got the success they
deserved, and it's like the universe has not yet reached a breaking point
with the material. Not enough people have heard it yet. Until they do
(possibly after the release of the
can't-you-wait-'til-the-fucking-body's-cold? greatest hits collection later
this spring), the music will remain relevant. It will sing for you.

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