Soul Coughing - Ruby Vroom
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Mike Doughty is gifted, gifted man. There exists a very miniscule number of songwriters who are able to approximate to his everlastingly neoteric and splendidly inverted approach to concocting extremely innovative and captivating lyrics. Many artists attempt to explore the very same dangerous terrace of attaining masterful skittishness, but soon find themselves toppling over from a lack of self-impudence and neediness for prompt recognition (Cake, the lead singer of Morphine—literally). Doughty constructs deep, often sneakily amatory verses that keep the mind thoroughly studious without being too outright or brazenly histrionic. It’s quite a disgrace that his work has been unsuccessful in becoming more broadly recognized; one would certainly be hard-pressed to discover another lyricist capable of replicating the mink rapture of Doughty’s anomalistic chain of thought.
Don’t get me wrong, the frontman isn’t the only band member who has moments of roguish artistry. Bass player Sebastian Steinberg (who wields a massive upright) deploys some of the 90s’ most chill, song-carrying basslines, taking total domination over his beast of a four-string and making it look like something of a child’s toy. Percussionist Yuval Gabay, who had never once played drums with a full-on, complete band before the meeting up with Doughty in 1992, pounds out eccentric loops like a pure-bred pro and occasionally ventures into a flawless freak-out supporting his lyricist’s throated ambitions. Soul Coughing’s hidden advantage, and what ultimately expands the gap between them and similar bands (albeit a limited number) is the sampler/keyboard wizardry of Mark de Gli Antoni. He bobs and weaves through minor gullies in songs and fills them up with mounds of enchanted, teeming melody. All these wonderful elements amalgamate to mold a musical unit so hidebound and valiant in their own endowment (rhymes, son) that their debut album turned out to be so purely unmarred. Ruby Vroom is one of the very best and most overlooked albums of the 90s. It said “fuck grunge and punk” (arguably the most popular genres of the time period) without actually saying it, and did so through a sly, rejuvenating clash of untouched genres past and yet to be uncovered.
From a first-time listener standpoint, Ruby Vroom can be essentially received as something of a Beat-era concept album; an elegy to the generation in which Doughty seemed to have developed a soulful connection to. Continuous listens help explain the album’s trajectory, revealing its downbeat, sage-like attentiveness for expanding tunes into maximal detail, and building off a lost genre. While the album seems to settle within a particular style of recording, it’s safe to say that Ruby Vroom’s tones and moods cover an extraordinary range of emotions. Doughty can be languishing as well as positively meditative when he desires to do so (in “Janine,” the album’s closer, Doughty performs a quiet, touching duet with a phone recording). He’s also highly poetic in his narrative structure, smoothly accompanying his abstract wording with an ambrosial filmic image. An expert guitar player he is not, but his riffs are often solid and are able to locate a suitable place within layers of lusty sound. Needless to say, the remainder of the band is Doughty’s life support system; fine-tuning themselves to the exact harmony niche in which the lead singer has barricaded himself in. Ruby Vroom showcases Soul Coughing at their most unified and innocent, marrying together the band’s love for original sonic landscapes with an intense appreciation for each other as comrades and fellow music makers.
The album’s basic tabulation, and one of its most quirkily rocking tracks comes in the form of “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago,” Ruby Vroom’s opening number. Featuring lackadaisical denotations of careless bloodshed, confident repartee with ninja-like stabs of cynical farce, and a backbeat of promenade-inducing funkiness designed to work the midsection to a healthy sweat, the song is spaced-out but undeniably focused. The subject matter of a disturbed figure colliding an aircraft with a building “holding” a wide variety of cities (Saskatoon, Palmyra, Phnom Penh) may have been what was seemingly off-putting to mainstream audiences, but with such brilliant wordplay (“a man / Cuts in half / Just like he / Snaps a pencil”) and jazzy-to-the-joints musicianship present, it’s a wonder the track lacked a magnetizing pull for listeners craving something newfound. The album simply never misses a step from that point onward. Not once does it fail to be one of the most alive, resourceful works I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing.
“Sugar Free Jazz” is dark and enigmatic, fathoming a foggy, noir-like atmosphere without the use of narcotics (which is what the title suggests). “Casiotone Nation” is Mark de Gli Antoni’s greatest keyboarding accomplishment, supporting a symbol-crashing, bass-heavy rant on America’s insane materialism and the need to constantly exercise their right of assembly (“the people’s republic of S.A.S.E. / The people’s republic of lemony fresh”), with a surreal, wind chime orchestration. “Blueeyed Devil” should have been a radio smash, with its standoffish groove about the trials of a misfortunate door-to-door salesman (possibly an account of Doughty himself—he worked as a doorman for quite some time) and the joy of shooting heroin (Doughty’s drug of choice, and, yes, he did kick the addiction—he’s still very much alive on his 2005 solo piece Haughty Melodic). Other highlights include the sample-heavy, acidic battering-ram cartoon romp of “Bus to Beezlebub,” the Los Angeles love song “Screenwriter’s Blues” (probably the greatest thing Doughty has ever written), “Down to This,” an eerie lyrical misgovernment toying with the concept of botched murder (“you get the ankles / And I’ll get the wrists”), and “Mr. Bitterness,” where Doughty finally shares some insight into his romantic life, and soon establishes that this concept should be something left out of further albums (“desire is the grassfire drinking gasoline / And she says open up your mouth man, let me come inside”). Wow. TMI, Mr. Doughty.
Out of Soul Coughing’s three albums, Ruby Vroom stands out as the best by leagues. 1996’s Irresistible Bliss was considerably good (“Super Bon Bon,” “The Idiot Kings”), but was cluttered with too many filler tracks and poor sequencing, a shock compared to the debut’s escalation in these departments; it just didn’t feel like the band’s aim was in the correct direction for a sophomore album. After another two year absence, Soul Coughing’s existence was put into question. Gratefully, the band returned to full creative, competition-distancing power with their second masterpiece and final album as a band, 1998’s El Oso. They retained the spontaneous, lounge-driven scaffolding of Ruby Vroom but rightfully shouldered Doughty’s one-of-a-kind vocals to the foreground, while cleverly conjugating the keyboard/samples to the entire arc of spazzy songs. “Circles,” the album’s one single, was featured on Cartoon Network in some really smart ads (you know, about how when old-school cartoon characters ran, the background would constantly repeat itself). True, El Oso is great, but if an inarguably accurate portrait of the madness of Soul Coughing is what is to be found, search no further than Ruby Vroom. Soul Coughing may have disbanded some five and a half years ago, but it feels as if they never left; the relentless spirit of their catalog is something so cultivated that the obviousness of its long-lasting effects is something to behold until time itself gives way.
By: Mike LeChevallier
Published on: 2006-02-14