Rap & roll exploded five years ago, long enough to spawn a second generation, mongrelized by even more influences and hence more sophisticated. Beck, Bobby Sichran and G. Love and Special Sauce have already staked out this territory, but Soul Coughing with reference points like the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money," William Burroughs records, Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," 1991's landmark Unplugged rap show, Big Audio Dynamite and Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" take it to another level.
Ruby Vroom, the band's brilliant debut, draws on hip-hop, spoken word, dance hall, Manhattan's avant-garde scene, Ken Nordine and straight jazz without specifically being any one of them or even a hyphenated combination. Soul Coughing aren't merely eclectic lots of bands are that instead, they've synthesized it all into a compelling and profoundly original sound.
While demon drummer Yuval Gabay slaps out crafty bastard cousins of the "Funky Drummer" beat, standup bassist Sebastian Steinberg cuts booming, swinging lines, slicing a deep groove that's more thinking-person's danceable than anything since Talking Heads. Keyboardist M'ark De Gli Antoni drops in countless sampled sound bites, while M. Doughty sketches wiry guitar filigrees and hawks his noirish poetry like a hipster carnival barker.
It sounds arty on paper and, well, in fact, it is. But it's also catchy. Doughty has a gift for the verbal hook, bending his nicotine-stained croon into simple, jazz-inflected melodies. De Gli Antoni not only revolutionizes what sampling can do as a rhythmic, harmonic, textural and melodic tool but also introduces a whole new lexicon, appropriating things like Howlin' Wolf, squeaking doors, the Andrews Sisters and Carl Stalling. His jaunty jazz piano chords carve a shuffling path across the funky backbeat of "Sugar Free Jazz" like a happy drunk jaywalking through midtown traffic.
Just as De Gli Antoni samples sound, Doughty samples '90s culture, finding magic in even the most banal elements of the collective consciousness. Over the bruising swing of "Casiotone Nation," Doughty name-checks pay-per-view TV, nipple clamps and Milton Bradley before quoting the old Schoolhouse Rock TV spots.
But Doughty isn't just taking potshots at consumerism there's some serious poetry going on here. "Brooklyn like a sea," Doughty observes in "True Dreams of Wichita," "in the asphalt stalks/Push out dead air from a parking garage/Where you stand with the keys and your cool hat of silence/Where you grip her love like a driver's license." "Screenwriter's Blues" evokes a freeway drive through a spectral Los Angeles dawn as surely as vintage Raymond Chandler.
Between Doughty's nonstop imagery, De Gli Antoni's artful noise and the rhythm section's uncanny syncopations, Soul Coughing impart massive amounts of musical information. But these days, when getting stuck at a traffic light between two boomin' systems can actually make for some cool sounds, Soul Coughing make pop music for the Information Age. (RS 697)
(Posted: Dec 15, 1994)
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