Circles, Super Bon Bon etc.
In theory, Kickstarter is a pretty great thing. You have an idea, and you know how to execute it, but you don’t have the money, so you connect with people who do. It’s venture capitalism in the microcosm – creation for donation is the sort of thing that tends to drive the more successful parts of the internet1, and certainly some nifty things have come out of it.
Eventually, of course, the thought occurred to someone that if these little nobody people can get their fancy pens or side-scrolling video games produced, then I, as a Big Important Totally Cool Human, can mobilize my pre-existing fanbase and get them to fund stuff. That is, as far as I’m concerned, also fine2. Basically what I’m saying here is: there are many bad ideas through and associated with Kickstarter but, as far as I’m concerned, Kickstarter itself isn’t one of them. But using Kickstarter to record an album of songs you wrote in the nineties with your then-pretty-cool band is dubious at best, and, when you’re noteworthy shithead M. Doughty, it actually results in some pretty terrible nonsense.
And make no mistake: this is definitely nonsense, and it is definitely dumb. For the last decade and a half, M. Doughty has tried to occupy two positions: that he was the only talented member of Soul Coughing, and that he was forever stymied by the other members of Soul Coughing, so what you’re hearing is the Soul Coughing that shouldn’t have been. These aren’t as contradictory as they might seem: he’s essentially saying that he, the only talented member of the band, was not allowed to be talented in the studio because of his terrible, hacky band members who didn’t want to do anything. Oh, also, he did a lot of drugs, a subject about which he is pretty goddamned vocal3. Nevertheless, he’s managed to carve himself out quite a solo career in a chummy, strummy sort of feel-good sub-Elvis Costello sort of way4. And across those solo records – four of originals, two covers records counting this one, a couple of live records and a few EPs, pretty easily outstripping Soul Coughing’s relatively-meager recorded output – he has always had to promote and play as “the former singer of Soul Coughing,” whether he meant to or not. And, again, I feel for him. If a plumber decides to become an electrician, they don’t have to contract their electrical services as “former plumber.” And all of that would be fair to note, except that he also, y’know, keeps going on about how terrible his band was.
And so, in the interest of doing this, let’s talk about that band. I am not what you’d call a huge Soul Coughing fan. I am what you would generally call an extremely casual Soul Coughing fan. Nevertheless, I know enough to know that, right off the top, it’s Mike Doughty’s considerable skills as a frontman that get one in the door. As the vocalist for Soul Coughing, he’s elastic, technically gifted, and perfectly willing to take risks. Their upright bass player does a pretty good job playing the upright bass, and I don’t know enough to say more about it. The fantastically-named Yuval Gubay is a pretty great drummer who seemed willing to play near the outside edge of his ability5, and the band’s super-compelling secret weapon was their samplerist/keyboard player Mike Di Gli Antoni, who played with the art-fried-jazz slam-poetry nature of the band by free-associating, or just generally weirding things up, on his instrument. The point here being: Soul Coughing was pretty clearly a band.
So, twenty years on, Mike Doughty is “correcting” the mistakes he made as a younger man, and has recorded some hired guns “playing” Soul Coughing songs, with the insistence that this was his true vision the whole time. And that’s where I come in.
By setting up the contents of Circles, Super Bon Bon No Wait the Record’s Title is Just Its Track List? That’s Fucking Ridiculous Ow My Balls as the ultimate, “correct” edition, Mike Doughty is, first and foremost, telling anyone that they like the band whose name and records, directly or indirectly, pay his bills (which seems, at the very least to be a poorly-caluclated solution for someone whose naked, open, undenied careerism has been a hallmark of his work to date, and so wouldn’t want to offend a sizable chunk of his customer base) two things: first, to the ones that stuck by him, that they are wrong, and that they are now obligated to like his “pure” take on his old material more than the material as it was originally conceived, and to anyone that would, theoretically, take this re-recording as a way to step into his solo material from the shadows of Soul Coughing fandom he is saying “this is literally as good as my creative vision gets.”
Right from the inception of the kickstarter, the album appeared as nothing so much as an opportunity to watch someone tip over under the weight of his own ego and fall on his face. The problem with putting your money where your mouth is is that your money has to be pretty good, and frankly Mike Doughty’s money might as well be Zimbabwean dollars. It’s not necessarily that the record isn’t good for me to listen to: I probably wouldn’t have liked it very much anyway, given that I’m not a fan of his solo work and am only marginally a fan of Soul Coughing itself. It’s that I can’t imagine anyone that did listen to and enjoy Soul Coughing getting anywhere with this record.
Many of the things that were a part of the original lineup are literally reversed. This isn’t surprising: in his memoir he apparently can’t even bother to mention his ex-bandmates by name (I haven’t read it – I heard it first in a review of this very record, and then corroborated with a friend who had), which seems about right for someone who clearly thinks of a band as a series of interchangeable faces to stand behind him onstage. Far from being a useful structuring element, the bass is an anchor (when it’s present at all – several of the songs appear not to have any bass on them whatsoever), dragging at every other part of the song. The drums plod metronomically6, Mike Doughty plays that one guitar part for every song, and where the samples used to be interesting moments of texture and surprise they are now…indescribably dull. There just isn’t even a word for what whoever is in charge of that keyboard is doing. So what would the person that heard and responded to Soul Coughing be coming to this record for? Even Mike Doughty’s voice – which, it cannot be said enough, is, at its best, a pretty phenomenal instrument – sounds dull and flat.
So one of two things must be true: either Mike Doughty isn’t lying, and this is really how he meant these songs to sound in the first place, in which he has basically discredited an enormous chunk of the vital part of his career, or he was looking for a cash-grab by “revisiting” the songs that people are still asking him to play in the laziest way possible, while doing his best to further discredit the people that helped him make them. Either way, what he ended up with was a record that makes it seem like he had nothing to add to Soul Coughing, rather than vice versa.
So who the fuck would listen to this? Well, anyone that was misled by his rhetoric into contributing to the kickstarter probably listened to it once and probably won’t be back for his next record. I suppose if there really are people that want to listen to Soul Coughing provided it sounds like M. Doughty’s solo records….then this is for them. But even then: if that’s really what you want, why does it need to come through Soul Coughing songs?
I would like to posit that this is, after its own fashion, an attempt on the part of Mike Doughty to do what Def Leppard, Kid Rock and Suicidal Tendencies have done before him: to rerecord the only songs people ever want to pay money to license so that he can be the license-holder instead of the label. He’s never made bones about wanting to be famous and make money, and it seems like the only way some sense can be made out of this goofy, bone-headed decision. So taken as it presumably is – a commercial, instead of an actual, vital record – it’s still a terrible, atrocious idea, but at least it isn’t so goddamned baffling.
1Well, that and advertising, obviously.
2 I tried to avoid the Amanda Palmer thing as much as possible, but this is the biggest example of this happening, and in theory, I think it’s fine: I see no reason not to do it, necessarily. If you “need” a million dollars, though, don’t ask for a hundred thousand. One of the niftiest things about Jeph Jacques’ recent Deathmole kickstarter was how forthright he was about needing to use the money for the record itself, which is what the money was for. In short: it’s a great way to dabble in venture capitalism or project funding, but you have to then act like a goddamned businessperson about it.
3 I’m not after him for that. I mean, I get it. Kicking a major addiction is a big fucking deal, and I totally get why it becomes a part of your personality afterwards. If I put a lot of work into something that made me undoubtedly healthire and saner, it would probably be a large part of my self-image as well. Still and all, I have never seen anything spoken, written or sung by him that didn’t in some way reference his former drug addiction, and I think it’s probably worth pointing out that, even as it’s perfectly understandable that it is a big part of his current self-image that he got clean, it would also be perfectly, entirely reasonable to write off his Soul Coughing years as a part of his life that he’s not proud of because of it, without denigrating the work of the other professionals who helped you achieve what you were able to achieve.
4 My experience with Mike Doughty’s actual solo output is even more limited than that of Soul Coughing: I’ve heard singles, I think he’s done a daytrotter session or two, and I saw him open for Low. I do know, however, that every song I’ve heard by him has sounded like every other song, which is pretty discouraging in terms of going out to listen to more.
5He actually does for Soul Coughing records something pretty similar to what Andy Stochansky was doing for Ani DiFranco’s string of great records in the nineties: providing something more of a framework to drive the band dynamically so it seems less the work of a poet and more like the work of a band.
6 The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Automatic was made by drug-addled egotists who hated the contributions of former members, and they, at that point, used a bass machine and a drum machine so they didn’t have to work with anyone else. Automatic is at least ten times the record that this batch of nonsense is. What I’m saying is: if you’re not going to have your musicians do something interesting there is literally no point, in 2013, of hiring musicians.