Though quirkiness seemed a double-edged sword for the many alternative-rockers that came from the burgeoning 90’s scene - on one hand, it could rise you high above your peers, allowing a band to stand out and be noticed amongst a multitude of like-minded bands jockeying for position - on the other, it can prevent mainstream success, thus preventing a variety of listeners from ever having the chance to hear it and leave an above-average band forgotten in the musical history books.
Seemingly straddling that place in between edges, New York’s Soul Coughing
had the ability to make some of their tracks just catchy enough to catch the attention of mainstream radio while maintaining an avant-garde edge and passion for jazzy grooves. Though admittedly this recipe was far from successful in the conventional sense, it was enough to develop the kind of cult-following that many acts from the scene still enjoy today. Aside from the bands general talent as musicians that could embrace a wide variety of styles, the mainstay of the Soul Coughing sound were the vocals and lyrics of Mike Doughty, delivered in a “stream of consciousness” style that merged singing with spoken word poetry. This narrative device, basically a loose, systematic stream of lyrics, supposedly spilling freely from the writers consciousness (aka points of view, musings, etc.), may come off as a bit pretentious, though it is undoubtedly a trademark characteristic of Soul Coughing’s sound. Led by the flowing poetic lyrics of vocalist/guitarist Mike Doughty, the upright bass grooves and occasional fiddling Sebastian Steinberg, keyboard and sampling work from Mark de Gli Antoni, and backed by the drumming of Yuval Gabay, Soul Coughing managed to combine their varying musical backgrounds and develop a kind of cult-following most bands can only dream of.
‘Quirkiness’ is more than a little ambiguous so I’ll try a couple loose comparatives: think some of the 90’s alt-rockers that added just a touch of ‘avant-garde’ to their compositions, like the Faith No More
s, Blind Melon
s, or Porno for Pyros
. Unable to grasp the success of the aforementioned acts, Soul Coughing’s approach was perhaps even more bizarre than that of their peers. On their second offering, 1996’s Irresistible Bliss
the flair for the outlandish is still present, though it seems pretty watered down on several tracks, perhaps an attempt at reaching a wider audience. Indeed, from the get go the bands oddness stands out, starting heavy on the opener and carrying on that motif throughout the disc. Possibly the bands most well-known song, Super Bon Bon
does a pretty good job at showcasing Soul Coughing’s sound; an infectious bass-line, subtle but catchy drumming, the song is groovy, intricate, ominous, and catchy as hell – in short, a hell of a way to start off a record. Admittedly, things get less exciting as the album progresses, though the musicianship warrants multiple plays to absorb everything that’s going on.
Ultimately what seems to make this band incredibly fresh and interesting to some listeners are the same quirks that drive away others. Frontman Mike Doughty’s vocal delivery can become a bit much after an album’s worth of material all in the same vein, while the bands drive to be different can come off a bit pretentious or downright off-putting at times. Still, these are the things that gain a band a cult-following, and ultimately the formula was enough for these guys to make it work. Brave enough to try radically different ideas within their genre and smart enough to keep their music at least somewhat accessible to a mass audience, Soul Coughing is a band that should not be overlooked by any fan of 90s alternative music.