An East Coast slang term for vomiting, Soul Coughing serves well as a name for this 3-year-old NYC quartet that ingests, digests, then regurgitates a stylistic stew of rock, jazz, ambient and spoken word. That all the chunks so often coagulate into a satisfying whole is surprising, since Soul Coughing's members each approach composition from radically different starting points--Sebastian Steinberg's fat, jazzy, upright-bass lines bop through swirls of keyboard-sampler player Mark De Gli Antoni's digitized noise. And Michael Doughty's sing/speak vocals and chicken-scratch guitar lines are juxtaposed with Yuval Gabay's funky, world-beat drumming. Such an eclectic mix could easily degenerate into something pretentious and convoluted--Sting, for instance--but Soul Coughing maintains an unflappable cool by modulating between Eno-esque explorations and sublime pop.
Formed in 1993, Soul Coughing is the fruit of Doughty's quest to bring together the best musicians he encountered in the downtown Manhattan experimental-pop scene, centered on the Knitting Factory. After a handful of showcase gigs, the band landed a record deal and produced the 1994 debut Ruby Vroom, which was critically praised but didn't sell well, despite a radio hit with "Screenwriter's Blues." Between recordings the band has toured extensively, cut a song for the Blue in the Face soundtrack, and scored one of the strongest tracks ("Unmarked Helicopters") on the recent X-Files compilation Songs in the Key of X.
Coughing's sophomore album, Irresistible Bliss, isn't the surreal, raucous collection of tunes that Ruby Vroom was. It doesn't have the sheer freakish power of "Blueeyed Devil" or the epic-noir sheen of "Screenwriter's Blues." There are no vignettes about telepathic security guards, and Doughty sputters not a single line from the Book of Revelations. Nor does he mention Beelzebub even once. The new recording retains the debut's strung-out quality, but after playing together nightly on tour for more than a year, Soul Coughing has tightened up and jettisoned many of the haphazard touches that made Ruby Vroom such an endearing, idiosyncratic treat.
Tedious filler, like "How Many Cans?" and "The Idiot Kings," detracts from better moments, such as the intriguing cross rhythms on "Soundtrack to Mary" and the kick-in-the-guts mania of "Super Bon Bon," easily the best cut on the album. With a ponderous bass line that plays off De Gli Antoni's belching mass of found noises, "Super Bon Bon" articulates a tale of paranoid love worthy of any psychiatrist's couch. Another fine offering is "Collapse," with its nouveau Talking Heads clutter and groove pushed along by De Gli Antoni's mutated-string samples and Gabay's polyrhythmic accents.
De Gli Antoni is the principal element in the mix throughout Bliss, his odd assortment of samples incorporating detritus ranging from Carl Stalling snatches to rampaging elephants. Even Doughty's guitar, more prominent on the debut, is relegated to the background here as De Gli Antoni assumes control of the band's guitar "solos" through his computerized rig.
But if Doughty has chilled out on his six-string, the somber charm of his deadpan-vocal delivery is intact. His disjointed poetry may not always make perfect sense, but his nasal drone is hypnotic. It's the shape and sound of his words that captivates, not their meaning. Like a beatnik tripping in some far-out acoustic jungle, Doughty seems to launch his spoken-word spiels at whim as he digs the jazz/funk flora blooming all around him.
Bliss isn't quite the killer follow-up to a startlingly good debut, but it's compelling in almost a literary way--you want to keep coming back to "reread" this album to catch a few more of the subtle details you missed the last time.
Soul Coughing is scheduled to headline the second stage at Lollapalooza '96 on Saturday, July 27, at Compton Terrace in Chandler. The festival begins at 2 p.m.; Soul Coughing should go on around 7:30 p.m.