Mike Doughty’s “Golden Delicious”

Feb 20, 2008 11:57am

A decade or so ago, Mike Doughty was leading the New York band Soul Coughing.  Doughty’s guitar-work, Yuval Gabay’s tight drum-assault, Sebastian Steinberg’s upright bass-action, and Mark de Gli Antoni’s wizardry with a keyboard and sampler made a kind of music Doughty jokingly referred to as “deep slacker jazz.” The music really had very little actual jazz in it, aside from certain groove elements and the upright bass, but mainly served as a nice backdrop for Doughty’s nonsensical, often fun and befuddling lyrical stanzas.  The band had a few alt-rock nineties hits including “Screenwriter’s Blues,” “Super Bon Bon” and “Circles,” and even found themselves opening up for the Dave Matthews Band at one point.    When the group disbanded in 2000, Doughty found himself without a label and decided to reinvent himself as a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar.  He went around doing shows and selling his very-stripped-down solo debut, “Skittish” to his live audiences.  The record was received well, and so he then followed it up with the more produced E.P. “Rockity Roll.” It took quite a few years for this approach to really gain him the major-label steam he had with his previous band.  Enter Semisonic leader Dan Wilson.  (Yes, the Semisonic who recorded that semi-annoying but never-the-less monumental hit “Closing Time.)  He and Doughty teamed up, with Wilson acting as producer to record what would become his first proper solo album, 2005′s “Haughty Melodic.”  At some point during this period, Doughty reconnected with his old friend Dave Matthews who added him to the roster of his label ATO Records, and thus Mike Doughty was back on track.  “Golden Delicious” is the follow-up to “Haughty Melodic.”  It finds him in much the same place as that record did.  Wilson is back behind the boards.  It may seem like an odd pairing given their work separately, but it seems to work, so it’s not worth knocking.  Somehow Wilson’s radio-ready production sense is able to clean up Doughty for the masses.  Whether that is ultimately a good thing is an argument you can have amongst yourselves.  “Golden Delicious” is a better, more confident record than its predecessor.  “Haughty Melodic” was always a good listen, but it didn’t have the immense mind-blowing elements that Doughty’s Soul Coughing work did.  He seemed like he was still getting used to a pair of new shoes.  Sure, that album had its great moments like the big AAA-radio single “Looking at the World From the Bottom of a Well” as well as album tracks “Unsingable Name,” “Busting Up a Starbucks” and “White Lexus,” but towards the end of the disc, it got murky and sort of uniform sounding, with each song bathed in a sort of vague spiritual edge.  For Soul Coughing fans, it was great to hear Doughty getting some love and recording anything at all, but his funky, silly, more adventurous side was in danger of becoming a casualty in favor of mid-tempo radio-rock.  Here was one of the most unusual, unique figures to emerge out the nineties, with less of a spark.  The great thing about “Golden Delicious” is that it better balances these two sides of Doughty.   It’s more playful like the Soul Coughing records, but yet possesses the maturity of “Haughty Melodic.” Opener, “Fort Hood” actually lifts its chorus from the “Hair” song “Let The Sunshine In.”  The Fifth Dimension version is culturally indelible, but Doughty puts his own stamp on the song and it’s a nice fit.  He did something similar on “Skittish” when he quoted Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love.” Sometimes it’s nice to pay homage to the classics.    The first two songs go into each other perfectly.  Next is “I Just Want the Girl in the Blue Dress to Keep On Dancing.”  Not only does the song have a nice, catchy hook but it also shows a new-found romanticism and happiness.  You can almost imagine Doughty sitting at some karaoke bar in some hipster-filled neighborhood in Brooklyn like Park Slope or Williamsburg, watching women as they pass him by. The title alone longs to be noticed! Doughty has a lyrical gift, and that’s saying something profound when you consider that he’s also prone to scatting nonsensical syllables at random moments.  The guitar rhythm of “Put it Down” recalls the Soul Coughing songs “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” and “Soft Serve,” but unlike those two, it develops into a pub-rock jam complete with some truly nifty band interplay.  It’s not much of a song tune-wise, but you get the feeling that it really must rule in the live setting.  It’s all feeling and unadulterated jamming.  “More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle” will annoy those who might not have liked his quirkier moments in Soul Coughing, but for Soul Coughing fans, it’s a nice return to form. It’s 1:39 of inspired funky lunacy with the help of guest vocalist Stephanie Beatriz.  It’s the closest to the early Soul Coughing mold Doughty has gotten in a long, long time.  Next comes the single, “27 Jennifers.”  Longtime Doughty fans will know this song well because an earlier version appeared on “Rockity Roll.”  Here it is slightly bolder, but both versions are essential.  Upon listening to the track, two things come to mind.  First, it’s nice how he plays with numbers here by saying, “I went to school with 27 Jennifers. / 16 Jenns, 10 Jennys and then there was her.”  It’s a nice lyric, especially the way he sets his subject above the fray.  Secondly, the song reminds me of a classic “New Yorker” cartoon by Jack Ziegler (from the April 7, 1980 issue, page 50) showing a nursery school class picture from “The Peter Rabbit Nursery School.”  In the cartoon, the class is listed as follows, “Scott, Jennifer, Jennifer, Scott, Jennifer, Jennifer, Scott, etc.”  If Doughty went to school with so many Jennifers,  how many people named Scott were at his school?  Hmmmm… “I Wrote a Song About Your Car” finds Doughty back with the funky backbeat, merging nicely with a fully developed song.  He shows all of his trademarks well here. “I Got the Drop on You” is dark and eerily sparse, playing much like something that would’ve appeared on “Skittish.” “Wednesday ((No Se Apoye)” is the best track on the whole album.  It is a soft, mournful, meditation which steps along with the precision of a funeral march, yet simultaneously possesses the grace of a delicate waltz.  Never has anything Doughty has touched sounded so beautiful.  This song would’ve gone well in “Garden State.”  (Zach Braff better be paying attention for his next soundtrack.)    “Like a Luminous Girl” returns us to Doughty the romantic, where he sees a beautiful woman in the subway or in a disco, etc.  This kind of song could be creepy – (yeah, I’m talking to you, James Blunt!) but it isn’t, because it is delivered with care.  There’s something beautiful about the line, “The moonlight shines like a luminous girl tonight.”  “Nectarine Pt. 1″ seems like a weird title for a song on a record named after a kind of apple, but it pleases despite its lack of a quotable chorus.  Finally, the record closes with “Navigating the Stars at Night.”  Once it picks up, it too merges the old with the new.  It’s got a mature singer/songwriter vibe, while incorporating Doughty’s love of repeated random phrases.  It’s an end to a solid record.  If you’ve never heard Doughty, his affected, distinct singing tone may not be for you.  This record however would be an excellent starting point.  Here he is at his sharpest in many ways.  “Haughty Melodic” got a month or two of listens.  I can imagine listening to “Golden Delicious” for the whole rest of the year.  It’s not quite his best solo work because that’s still “Skittish,” but it’s close.  “Golden Delicious” is indeed true to its title.  Also, if you like this, and you like Soul Coughing and are also looking for other Doughty-related songs, you might want to sift through They Might Be Giants’ 2001 album “Mink Car” where Doughty is a guest vocalist on the song “Mr. Xcitement.”  He also worked with them on the obscure, yet thoroughly excellent B-side “Your Mom’s Alright,” which is definitely a track worth finding!

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