Soul Coughing - Live Releases

Soul Coughing, the now-defunct NYC band whose career was far too short, found an awful lot of music during their brief time together. There are not enough adjectives in the human vocabulary to describe their sound. With only three (spectacular) album releases to their credit and one “best of” compilation on the shelves, the band unintentionally left their fan base without much to remember them by. The band members have gone on to other things, but the yearn that a Soul Coughing fan feels for the band is similar to that of a Phish fan during hiatus. Various live recordings have surfaced recently, along with a handful of front man Mike Doughty’s solo adventures, and the community was briefly satisfied with the small cache of bootlegs that circulate.
Finally, after much wrangling with red tape, Kufala Recordings has come to the rescue. Five new double-disc sets of rare live Soul Coughing have just been set free.

I'm not going to mince words. The releases don't amaze the listener with newfound sound quality. I've heard recordings of the band that are just as impressive on The releases seem to function on the same level as a purchased FLAC from a tangible memory of a live band at its finest. Any Soul Coughing fan worth their salt will have to own these discs. They include some very hard-to-find pictures, and I must say just holding a real CD that says "Soul Coughing" on it is enough of a reward for me after 5 years of nothing from the band's archives.

Evident on these releases is the caterwauling power of the bands live performances, driven by the quizzical samples of Mark DiGliantoni, the writhing bass of Sebastian Steinberg, the unflappable drumming of Yuval Gabay, and Mike Doughty's constantly evolving poetry-slam-on-steroids vocals. Together these guys formed a thick, hyper-jazz collage of unearthly music and verbose-yet-identifiable lyrics. I'm hard pressed to think of another songwriter with as much control of the language as Doughty or another band with a sound like Soul Coughing.

There's not a wasted disc in the bunch. My favorite so far is the Tokyo, Japan set that was recorded in February 1997, during the band's heyday. The sound quality is excellent and the setlist is just amazing. "Uh Zoom Zip" is a nice way to get a show started off on the funky side. The first disc is one that will remain in rotation more than the rest because of the inclusion of lesser-known songs like "212", "4 Out Of 5", "Sleepless", and "Disseminated". There's simply no filler at all, and the band seems happy with each other and relaxed. The dark "City Of Motors" opens disc two in fine, storytelling fashion before the band moves into the aggressive "Paint" and "White Girl". Rounding out the set with a slew of their most lauded tunes (such as "Super Bon Bon" and "Screenwriter's Blues"), the band put the cap on one of the best shows they ever played.

The Rennes, France set is a fairly straightforward presentation of tunes from the band's debut album Ruby Vroom, but it also includes the bizarre sampler-led oddity "Tell The Mermaid" and ends with two rare tunes, "The Wooly Imbibe" and the subdued "Blow My Only". This was recorded in 1994 and is a representative set for the band at that point.

The 8/16/99 New York show is particularly interesting since it is one of the band's final performances ever. The setlist references a wide swath of their catalog, from early fan favorites like "Janine" and "Moon Sammy" to later works such as "Maybe I'll Come Down" and "$300". The first disc is even book-ended by the band's most popular songs, "Rolling" and "Circles", and the rest of the show is a fine mix of tunes that make this release essential as well.

The most expansive disc in the series is another gem from 1997, a show from Berlin. At 16 tracks, this first disc is likely to make this the most appealing set. Opening curiously with "Tell The Mermaid", the show includes some unique songs in the form of "Funky Town", "So Far I Haven't Found The Science", and "Unmarked Helicopters", which was recorded for the Songs In The Key Of X-Files album. The second disc was recorded at the North Sea Jazz Fest in Amsterdam and includes a pair of songs that never made it to one of Soul Coughing's albums, "Buddha Rhubarb Butter" and "Lemon Lime".

If the whole collection is too much for you, a good choice would be the Live Rarities set. It spans the first 4 years of the band's history via a large selection of live tunes. Granted, some of the stuff isn't so rare; it includes frequently played tunes like "Blue Eyed Devil", "Screenwriter's Blues", "Casiotone Nation", and "Moon Sammy". Those are necessary to fill out this collection, however, and the bonus is worth it. Featured here are a couple of spontaneous creations (the odd "Free Jazz", a bass version of "Baby Elephant Walk" and the stupefying "I'm Living On Baby Food") and several tunes that rarely saw the light of stage ("Supra Genius", "Laff On Fat Boy", "Murder Of Lawyers", and "City Of Motors").

The whole collection is shot through with inventive sample-scapes courtesy of Mark DiGliantoni that evolved over the course of the career that is encapsulated here. You may have heard some of his sounds on John Scofield's Up All Night album. From cartoon voices to old jazz tracks being manipulated to screeching and crashing sounds, he tries it all. Another common feature among these discs is Mike Doughty's fantastic ad-libs among the trees of the songs. His witty verbal gymnastics poking through the sonic haze provided by the band are the reasons you will get sucked into this world.

If you're a Soul Coughing devotee, you're probably lining up to buy these right now. If you don't know much about the band, start with the rarities set or the Berlin/Amsterdam show. In either case, these releases will become a unique part of your collection and a mysterious manifestation of music for years and years.

- Bryan Rodgers