Last year, in his memoir, “The Book Of Drugs,” former Soul Coughing leader Mike Doughty didn’t have kind words about his time in the band. Long story short, to say it was uncomfortable from his perspective is an understatement.
But from the outside, to the average fan, the ’90s New York beat-poetry and sample-driven band seemed like they were having a blast, spawning several groundbreaking alt-rock hits over their quick, three-album span.
But it was a dark time for Doughty, marred by internal band strife and addiction. His frank willingness to discuss his distaste for the time period is probably a cathartic process for him.
In the years since the band’s 1999 breakup, he has re-emerged as a top-notch singer-songwriter, seemingly eager to shed the ghosts of his past. So ultimately, it was a nice surprise when, earlier this year, he announced he was going to do an album of re-imagined versions of tracks he originally recorded with Soul Coughing. If you’ve listened to any one of the band’s albums, you probably can understand why there has been a little cult following built behind their work.
On “Circles Super Bon Bon …” Doughty reclaims the songs and, most likely, delivers them in ways he had originally imagined. In interviews, he has discussed how he would have to fight for songs to sound a certain way. Sometimes, he would have to concede. So one could look at this album as a revisionist exercise. How his former bandmates feel about this is unknown. But, the big surprise is he actually improves and/or nicely compliments the vast majority of these cuts.
Much of the record is given more of a pop sheen than one probably would expect. The effect works. Sure, some of the songs were hits in their original form (like “Super Bon Bon” and “Circles,” for instance) but the collection’s revelatory moments generally stem from the songs that didn’t get airplay.
“The Idiot Kings,” in its original form, had a brooding, heavy, driving quality. The version here is infinitely brighter, thanks to a choice key change and a well-used drum loop.
“True Dreams of Wichita” was originally an upright-bass driven lament. In its new form, it loses no intensity while it ends up sounding like a more complete cousin to Primitive Radio Gods’ 1996 hit, “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand.”
In fact, the album on the whole seems celebratory. Doughty is aiming these songs at an audience willing to dance. “How Many Cans” and “Sleepless,” which were originally both slow-building, almost meditative dirges packed with an underlying sense of menace, now bounce around with newly reinforced backbones.
Sure, there are minor complaints. “Monster Man” is now reduced mainly to its core chorus section, like a reductionist dance remix, while “Circles,” was so ubiquitous for a period in 1998 that perhaps no re-imagined rendition could do it justice because the original version was perfect.
But for every minor disruption, this record offers 10 surprises. “Super Bon Bon” for instance, was equally omnipresent on alt-rock radio in 1996, but here it is given new life by a playful bit of scratching.
This album demonstrates that Soul Coughing really should’ve had more hits and Doughty deserves respect as one of his generation’s keenest songwriters. While Doughty, himself, was probably exorcising personal demons by re-imagining these songs, in the process, he has given them a second life.
Any fan of Soul Coughing should find this album, at the very least, to be a fascinating companion-piece to the original takes. In this surprising move, Doughty does his legacy proud. While some favorites may have not made the track list, this album, nevertheless, is a reminder of these songs’ lasting endurance. This is Doughty’s well-earned victory lap.