Soul Coughing don't sound like anybody else. Can you think of many other
bands about whom you can say that?
Wait, let me amend that question: Can you think of many good bands
whom you can say that? Because any idiot can sound like nobody else, but
putting out strong, compelling material that has almost no reference
points, well that's success.
By that definition -- and several others -- Soul Coughing are certainly
successful. Perfecting a kind of deep-groove math-hop, these four refugees
from New York's downtown jazz and avant-stuff scene are chock full of
tricks up their sleeves without often coming off precious or
cleverer-than-thou. In other words, they've got a good beat, and you can
sort of prance to it.
And since their tricks aren't really tricks, more like tactics,
they're not wearing thin. On El Oso, their third record, instead of
perfecting and squeezing their sound into narrower bits or, conversely,
reinventing themselves, Soul Coughing have continued to push themselves
here and there, nipping and tugging, finding new spaces in which to put
riffs and from which to subtract them. The result is somehow less chaotic
but more surprising, and there are even a few melodies to be found.
Soul Coughing pretty much deserve to be a huge success. They failed to set
the world on fire with their first two records, Ruby Vroom and
Irresistible Bliss, but they did manage to blow on embers here and
At a recent radio-station concert at Boston's open air Hatch Shell, they
were real Rock
Stars, giving off a geek magnetism you wouldn't believe. Lead singer and
guitarist M. Doughty had the crowd wrapped around the earpiece of his
thick, black-framed glasses, and though the crowd blew up for the band's
alterna-hit "Super Bon Bon," the audience also responded pretty gleefully
songs like the barely tuned "Circles" and the self-explanatory "Rolling."
If Korn are this generation's Metallica, then maybe Soul Coughing are our
Cars -- crossover nerds (which is a way to say "intellectual" and not turn
off the consumer quite so much). Dance rhythms -- especially hip-hop beats
-- aren't genre-specific anymore, they're just beats, like distorted
electric guitar eventually became just "guitar." Soul Coughing have adopted
dance beats, or maybe the idea of dance beats, as their foundation.
And while other hip-hop tropes, like deeeeep bass, atmospheric samples and
percussive guitars, make up the bulk of their musical vocabulary, their
phrasing is something else entirely -- they're inventing their own idioms.
But is there a conversation to follow, or is it all gibberish? Certainly,
there's a knowing hipness to Soul Coughing -- they're four white guys
making hip-hop wrong, after all, being glib comes with the territory.
There's never much weight to a Soul Coughing record, though. It's not
fluff, but at times the thin sentiments tend to pile up like filo dough,
tasty but fragile.
El Oso moves towards toughening up their ethic. Doughty's vocals are
less sing-speak and more composed this time, moving out of a three- or
riff into something approaching melody. His lyrics remain a little distant
-- instead of confessional, they're disarming, which, of course, is the
right approach, but you still end up wishing for something a little less
random. Sample and keyboard man Mark De Gli Antoni is more restrained, too,
coming on with a less haphazard approach than in the past.
For a band that's all rhythm-section, it's still the traditional bass and
drums that keep the whole thing from flapping away like a balloon untied.
Sebastian Steinberg, always forceful, really asserts his sound on this
record, occasionally almost subsonic. Yuval Gabay's drumming is still worth
writing home about. Somehow he's inventive without being showy, taking off
on flights of fancy without leaving us behind. He's added drum-&-bass
licks to his repertoire, sweetening the mix with even faster, jumpier
But most importantly, the whole thing gels in a way that Irresistible
wasn't able to. The songs are fit together well -- there's no number that's
obviously positioned as the break-out single the way "Super Bon Bon" was.
And while Soul Coughing sound confident, they still sound a little
uncomfortable, uneasy not with their music but with the world around them,
perpetually just slightly outside. It's the key to their near-success --
once they feel like they belong, they're done for (because who wants geeks
around who think they fit in?), but if they go the other route and
completely freak out, they'd alienate all the semi-outsiders.
In other words, Soul Coughing are near-perfect, and they'd do well to stay
that way. El Oso is off-center, funky and funny-strange, not
funny-ha-ha. And it blissfully sounds like nothing other than a Soul