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Mike Doughty
Circles Super Bon Bon Sleepless Nick Reed , September 27th, 2013 05:18

Sebastian Steinberg. Yuval Gabay. Mark De Gli Antoni. These are the three former members of Soul Coughing, the men who Mike Doughty, in his infinite bitterness, could not even bring himself to name in his 2012 memoir, The Book of Drugs. Doughty’s attitude towards his former band has always been confusing – he takes credit for almost everything Soul Coughing ever did, yet whines that he never had much creative control over the records. He admits that he was a barely functional junkie through most of the band’s existence, yet insists that everyone else was the problem. He wants the fans to move on and isn’t afraid to tell off those obsessed with his old band, yet still brings the subject up nearly every chance he gets.   Perhaps this isn’t his fault – Doughty’s status as Soul Coughing frontman always seems to eclipse his solo career, despite the fact that he has way more releases as a solo act. Every interview refers to him as the "ex-Soul Coughing singer". Case in point – when he asked his fans to fund this collection of Soul Coughing remakes, the goal was hit in less than 24 hours, and in the end raised over three times that much. Now the ball’s in his court. While Soul Coughing was never more than a fringe success, Mike’s always insisted that they could have been as big as the Beastie Boys, if only they had stuck to his vision. Now we get the chance to hear what that vision really was.

It’s actually quite simple: remove everything that Steinberg, Gabay, and De Gli Antoni did, then fill in the blanks. If you’ve followed Mike’s solo career, you may have a good concept of how this will sound already. But Circles Super Bon Bon Sleepless isn't an attempt to cover Soul Coughing through the eyes of Doughty solo - it's an attempt to re-create Soul Coughing from the ground up. Let’s take it one by one. Steinberg's been replaced with fellow upright player Catherine Popper, but she's buried in the mix, and sometimes just disappears altogether. The sampler/keyboard parts have been replaced with a variety of sound effects, and it's here that things start to go downhill. The unpredictability and resourcefulness of Mark De Gli Antoni was one of Soul Coughing's strongest suits, often giving the songs a surreal atmosphere. You never knew what you were going to hear, or how loud it would be when you heard it.

Doughty's recreations eliminate all that in favour of chopped vocal bits and sound effects such as the "tuned dog bark" that's come standard on the last several generations of Casios. But it's the beats that really get it the worst here. The thick, rolling drums that used to populate these songs have been replaced with computerised kick-whack-kick-thuds that would've sounded dated in 1993 - you even get to hear the dreaded "handclap on the two and four"! Alas, Doughty makes this the focus of his project. Suddenly, it becomes clear why Yuval Gabay felt the need to complicate things (or at least why Soul Coughing needs a living, breathing drummer); many of these beats are similar, and they do little but offer a (really loud) click track for Mike to sing over.

This attitude spreads to the songs themselves – former dirges like 'Maybe I’ll Come Down' and 'True Dreams Of Wichita' are given upbeat, club-friendly arrangements. 'Super Bon Bon' loses its edge entirely, dropping the tricky industrial rhythm and miring everything in a sea of boppiness. The same can be said about 'Unmarked Helicopters', almost certainly the biggest miss on the whole album. The trouble with this is that, as good of a songwriter as he can be, variety was never really Doughty’s thing. Many of his songs follow one of three or so different chord progressions, at least one of which is 'Pachelbel’s Canon'. The really odd Soul Coughing material such as 'Casiotone Nation', '4 Out Of 5', 'Screenwriter’s Blues', and so on, is not attempted. If you’ve never heard the originals, you may find yourself asking "didn’t I just hear this?" several times over the course of the album. On occasion Doughty will try to shock the listener with something new, such as the sudden double time beat on 'So Far I Have Not Found The Science'. But such moments are few and far between – this is bedroom pop all the way.   Which begs the question: what exactly was he trying to accomplish here? If the point was to prove how badly his band mates sabotaged him, it backfired - if anything, Circles Bon Bon Sleepless proves just how hard they had to work to wring greatness out of the songs that Doughty was bringing to the table. If the point was to exorcise his demons and to hear a Soul Coughing request without curling up into a ball of rage, then it's at least a positive step. If the point was to get his fans to pay for a way to help him recoup some of the royalties he feels entitled to, it's brilliant. And those who prefer Doughty's solo work to Soul Coughing may even like these renditions better; the songs are still catchy, and now they don't pull you in a bunch of different directions at once.

Still, had Soul Coughing actually been this way from the start, it's tough to see them having the success they had, much less anything on the level of the Beastie Boys. It feels like he's taking a step back; his covers album is livelier and more creative than this, perhaps because it didn't feel the need to live up to anything. Those who pledged their cash to this project could also opt to receive a separate disc of solo acoustic renditions of these songs (including many that aren't on this release), which I suspect is the real treasure here; after all, Doughty’s always been at his best when he’s not trying to get away with too much.