19 Years Ago: Soul Coughing Release ‘Irresistible Bliss’
Grunge was such a dominant force at the beginning of the '90s that the mid-90s seemed musically directionless. Sure, there were some great albums released in 1996, but that single dominant sound that comes along every couple of generations was nowhere to be heard.
It was a good time if you were in the market for a 12-pack of Eddie Vedder impersonators, but if you were looking for an eclectic fusion of jazz, alternative, poetry, and hip hop, the post-grunge era wasn't exactly a golden age. Enter Soul Coughing.
They were a strange mix for a major label band. Sebastian Steinberg favored an acoustic double bass over a more hip-hop/funk friendly Fender Precision, for example. Drummer Yuval Gabay – his partner in the rhythm section – was capable of laying back in the pocket or building eccentric beats, whichever the song needed. On keyboards and samplers, Soul Coughing featured Mark De Gli Antoni, who earned a master's degree in music composition.
But as is often the case, when we think of Soul Coughing, we think of their front man, Mike Doughty. After all, It's his words that we hear and they are emanating from his mouth. Right or wrong, singers attract the spotlight.
On July 9, 1996, Soul Coughing released Irresistible Bliss, the second of only three albums the band would release over the four years spanning 1994 to 1998. The album was at once fresh, innovative and mildly pretentious with Doughty's spoken word tumbling over the well-crafted tracks like some sort of displaced Beat poet. In typical sophomore fashion, the critics greeted the album with comparisons to the band's acclaimed debut, 1994's Ruby Vroom. Irresistible Bliss was slicker, not as loose, more "produced" and even dull. Still, cuts like "The Idiot Kings" sound as good today as they did nearly 20 years ago.
Remember: This was major label stuff, no matter how idiosyncratic. Soul Coughing hit the promotional circuit, turning up on Conan for a tasty version of "Soundtrack to Mary:"
On the Soul Coughing Underground website, Doughty gives a nod to his band mates' performance on "Soundtrack to Mary:"
This song, in my estimation, is Yuval and Sebastian’s finest hour. When the bass and drums kick in after the first verse–damn, that kills me softly. Just bought these huge speakers, too–my roommate Jason calls ’em The Big Ass Biscuits–and that kick-in is monstrous, massive, on them. Basically it’s this wan lil’ pop song powered by a low end twice the size of the biggest jeep beat you could think of. I am proud to be the geek that gets to surf the Rhythm Section of Doom.
The kind words wouldn't last long, though. The band hung together through 1998's El Oso, but when the end came, it was brutal. As often happens, battles over songwriting and control led to a bitter divorce, with Doughty claiming that he wrote all of the music and the rest of the band claiming that many songs were collaborative efforts that grew out of jam sessions.
In a 2012 article for Pitch, Doughty conceded that "there was a lot of stuff that came from jamming — a keyboard part or a beat," but he drew the line there, noting that "in the end, songs are things that are sung. And I was the only guy writing stuff that was sung."
In the same article, keyboardist De Gli Antoni is quoted:
I could enter a rehearsal with Sebastian and Yuval, begin playing a shell of something, and the two of them would then completely invent a whole drum-bass world around that. I would then drop what I was initially doing and do something else. Mike would then start riffing words, and eventually we would have a 'Super Bon Bon.' To me, the final result is something I would never say I 'wrote' even if I started it, because the end result was so something-else. Many, many of our songs were like that.
What followed was nearly 20 years of bitterness with Doughty slagging his old band, while his old band mates went on with their lives. De Gli Antoni writes film scores and Steinberg made a career for himself as a session musician and sideman backing Fiona Apple, Eddie Vedder and Johnny Marr, just to name a few. Drummer Yuval Gabay remains busy, too.
As for lead singer Doughty, he moved away from the eclectic sound of Soul Coughing, opting instead for a more conventional singer-songwriter approach that has been very successful. In 2012, he published his memoir, The Book of Drugs, in which he talks quite a bit about Soul Coughing, and several YouTube videos exist of the singer talking about how he doesn't want to talk about Soul Coughing, likening his time with the band as an abusive relationship. During solo shows, he adamantly declined to play Soul Coughing songs, peppering his social media feeds with demands to be left alone regarding his former band. Pitch quotes a 2010 tweet from the singer: "Dear Soul Coughing fans, please DROP IT. I am NOT THAT GUY ANYMORE. If you must cling to it, please DON'T BOTHER ME WITH SOUL COUGHING S--T."
You can probably guess what eventually happened: Doughty mounted a successful 2013 crowdfunding campaign to record solo versions of the songs that he didn't want to be bothered with, including tracks from Irresistible Bliss:
According to Doughty, there is no amount of money that would coax him into a reunion with his former bandmates. But, for the small but enthusiastic group of fans that still love Soul Coughing that's bitter medicine, we'll always have Irresistible Bliss -- that weird, lovely record that cut through the post-grunge wilderness.