Soul Coughing’s El Oso turns 20
We’re living in bizarre timeline for all sorts of reasons, but one highly niche concern is the way the astounding rhythmic progress of much mid-to-late ‘90s alternative rock has been retconned as not simply out of fashion but also some kind of embarrassment.
Sure, Beck has survived, somewhat, without much of his sardonic, hyper-sampling soul intact since the millennium, and the Beastie Boys’ prematurely heartening principles all but ensured an ironclad legacy. But Ani DiFranco, Soul Coughing and even ahead-of-their-time emo futurists the Dismemberment Plan have fallen completely out of purview; they’re not even kitschy enough to cite as an overtly ‘90s influence or to spawn a revival movement. Drum’n’bass, the hyperactive electronic genre that several of these artists drew real-time rock dynamics from, hasn’t seen much in the way of a resurgence either.
What these acts had in common though, at the tail-end of radio’s most anything-goes decade (hello, Cake, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Chumbawamba, and that only gets us through the C’s), were visionary and downright pyrotechnic in their rhythmic chops. Soul Coughing leader Mike Doughty’s signature guitar strum has few antecedents or followers, though in his truly grim memoir The Book of Drugs, he talks about attending the same school as Ani DiFranco, which might be a clue because no one thumps her acoustic axe’s unusual stop-start riffs like her either. The Dismemberment Plan buzzed around D.C.’s post-Fugazi punk scene but took cues from hip-hop, Outkast’s “B.O.B.,” and drum’n’bass on live instruments themselves.
Yet Soul Coughing were the most purely groove-oriented outfit of any of these anachronisms, with Doughty slyly terming their style “deep slacker jazz” and upright bassist Sebastian Steinberg and manic tubthumper Yuval Gabay swinging and pounding in lockstep. For toplines, Doughty and sampler-adept M’ark De Gli Antoni folded in the culture around them: music from Looney Tunes cartoons, repetitious meaningless phrases that could be easily switched out during live improv (“the five percent nation of nipple clamps!”), the Andrews Sisters, Howlin’ Wolf, whatever. Doughty sang, sort of, but in a rappy, slam-poet, standup-comic way, a blunt mix of punchlines, non-sequiturs and occasionally impressionist romance (“Janine, I drink you up / If you were the Baltic Sea and I were a cup, uh-huh”).
Because it was the ‘90s, they scored real radio play with real hits, like the bass-heavy thunderstorm “Super Bonbon” and the Ringo-simple “Circles,” but they also earned it because their songs were insidiously catchy, like sarcastic commercial jingles that would have you humming utterances like “and ever since then I was disseminated” or “you get the ankles and I’ll get the wrists” as if these were normal hooks punctuating linear stories. They weren’t.
El Oso, the unlikely and unstable quartet’s third and final album just turned 20, and it’s by far the tightest and most groove-oriented of the three, stripping down their loose eccentricities to a unified, forthright pound in the very first moments, on a track called “Rolling” that spends a lot of time building steam with “I’m rolling, I’m rolling, I’m rolling, I’m rolling-uh” just a year before Limp Bizkit would both nuke the phrase and any kind of rap-rock altogether. When it finally releases its grip, out comes the blunt, clanging boom-bap of “Misinformed,” the studied Roni Size locomotions of “Blame” (“Blame is the cure, cure anything, pull the water down, pull the water down”), and the ominous, breathless tension of “Monster Man.”
These were Soul Coughing’s fastest songs to date, and Doughty rode them like the L train, leaning into his cyclical mantras like the very loops underpinning them. The quieter tracks worm their way into your skull, too, like the inescapably hummable “Fully Retracable” and the unforgettable “roller boogie, motherfucker” chant at the end of “Houston.” Nearly seven-minute closer “The Incumbent” was Doughty’s closest foray into out-and-out rapping yet, and it was mostly one meditative verse over and over. El Oso was the album where Soul Coughing made repetition their gift. Not of all the hooks were so legible, though: The oddball “$300” unmasked a proto-screwed-and-chopped Chris Rock sample for a chorus, and one of the band’s best songs, “I Miss the Girl” stumbled through a funhouse of out-of-tune piano and tambourine at a dizzying clip.
The best thing about Soul Coughing was the undeniability that they were always ticking even when you weren’t sure what made them do so. And then they stopped. The Book of Drugs is one of the most lacerating, vitriolic memoirs of a ‘90s band you’ll ever read, and it took Doughty years to even want to hear these songs again, much less perform them live, in drastically revised and stripped-down renditions that mostly removed the — you guessed it — virtuosic rhythm elements. They’re still great songs. But you should hear them with one of the most innovative and unique (and virtuosic) rhythm sections of the last few decades, one that will never exist again. “I don’t need to walk around in circles,” sang Doughty on El Oso’s first single, and the biggest hit of his band’s career. So he didn’t.