April 20, 2005

Mike Doughty "Skittish/Rockity Roll"

Mike Doughty first gained the world's eye in the mid-1990s as the lead singer of Soul Coughing, who had two minor hits, "Super Bon Bon" and "Circles." Though the band's style--an alt-rock blend of funk, beat poetry and experimental music--was quite pleasant, the band imploded thanks to a combination of record label pressures, internal conflicts and Doughty's escalating drug use. The band's final album, El Oso was a brilliant showcase of Doughty's talents, a testament to a band forced to compromise and was generally and unfairly ignored. They quietly broke up in 2000. Doughty, however, refused to allow himself the luxury of obscurity, and set out on a solo career. Taking the term 'solo' quite literally, for most of this new journey, it's just been Doughty and his guitar and other sound effects he can devise. He recently signed a record deal with ATO Records and has chosen to reissue two self-released records during his exile.

Doughty was no stranger to working by himself; before Soul Coughing, he had developed a name for himself in New York's folk and poetry underground. In 1996, he teamed up with legendary producer Kramer to record a solo album, Skittish. The record--which was simply Doughty and his guitar--was understandably rejected. Like Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Whiskeytown's Pneumonia, the record took on another life amongst file sharing fans--and, to Doughty's surprise, audiences at his solo shows knew this material, prompting him to release the record himself. That it's been nearly seven years since he's released a proper full-length record full of new material is criminal.

Doughty seems quite comfortable in this relaxed, solo atmosphere. Though Soul Coughing was an extremely complicated band that emphasised strong, powerful rhythms and intricate musical backing, on Skittish, Doughty eschews his band's style, opting to make his music with simply a guitar. In his liner notes, he states that Soul Coughing had no room for this kind of music, and it's easy to see why. It's also somewhat understandable why his record label rejected it as well; many of the songs sound like nothing more than demos, and though they're compelling, they're a hundred miles away from Soul Coughing's alterna-funk. At times, songs like "No Peace, Los Angeles" and "Thank You, Lord, For Sending Me The F Train" remind of Dave Matthews and Tracy Chapman; not bd, but just different from what he was doing with Soul Coughing. It's music that's suitable for a quiet coffee house setting; not too loud, not too threatening, thought provoking yet enjoyable. Ultimately, Skittish is nice, pleasant, but somewhat nondescript.

In 2003, he then released a limited-edition EP, Rockity Roll. It finds Doughty breaking the notions of what a solo act should sound like. Though brief--eight songs in fifteen minutes--it whetted the appetite even more than Skittish. With plenty of time for maturity, songs like "27 Jennifers" and "Ossining," Unlike his album, these songs have accompaniments that are fuller; the songs are a bit more upbeat, there's less of a demo feel, and they show the promise of where Doughty's music will go next. What's fascinating about Rockity Roll--and a goodly portion of Skittish--is that Doughty's style is clearly influenced and inspired by "Circles," Soul Coughing's last minor hit, and a song initially dismissed as a record-label compromise. Funny how the circle comes around, isn't it? Added to this reissue are two outtakes from Skittish; two live songs from last year's Bonnaroo festival. The live tracks hint at Doughty's reputation as a consumate live performer.

Skittish/Rockity Roll is a worthwhile compilation, and serves as a prime reminder that Mike Doughty's a talented man who makes great music, and it's a great little appetizer for his proper debut album. Hopefully, his career won't get sidetracked again, because the world needs intelligent music, and Doughty's one of the most intelligent songwriters today.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.mikedoughty.com
Label Website: http://www.atorecords.com

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