Music All ears 

Doing it their way, part one

It has been five years since Soul Coughing coughed up the ghost, and frontman Mike Doughty didn't exactly hit the ground running after the breakup. There was a little rehab to do, one gathers, along with some experimental labor in the do-it-yourself, just-me-and-a-guitar fields. It was enough for hardcore fans, but went unnoticed by everyone else. (For those who missed them, two of those DIY efforts were recently released by ATO as Mike Doughty: Two Records.)

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Former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty, left, with guest artist Dave Matthews

Now Doughty has returned with Haughty Melodic (ATO Records), his first album with a backing band since 1998. Here the songwriter opens up with lyrics sounding like they draw a lot more from his own life than the old ones ever did; and in the course of making an enjoyable solo disc, he reveals how much of Soul Coughing's brilliance was due to his collaborators. There are some samples here, for instance, but nothing like the wacky strokes of genius that keyboard/electronics man Mark de Gli Antoni brought back in the day. Instead, A-listers like Dave Matthews and cellist Jane Scarpantoni are recruited here to flesh out Doughty's new words.

Hipster stoners who long for the old days are in luck. They can buy high-quality, double-disc bootlegs of some of the band's best performances - better yet, the records are legal, inexpensive, and approved by the artists. A little label calling itself Kufala - motto: "The Leader in Authorized Bootlegs" - has sprung up to serve the needs of fans the major labels ignore. They sell titles through both kufala.com and Amazon, and their roster is eclectic - everything from the "hip-hop orchestra" Dakah to trumpeter Nicholas Payton. The offerings occasionally seem geared toward the orbit of the jam-band scene, which is always scary for me. But if the hippies have caught on to oddball artists like Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Vinicius Cantuária, whose Live 8/7/03 appears on the label and includes tunes by Gilberto Gil, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Caetano Veloso, then maybe it's time to let them run record companies.

For Soul Coughers, Kufala offers late-period shows from Berlin, Amsterdam, NYC, and Tokyo. Those set lists are more diverse than their chronological nearness would normally indicate, but variety-seekers can also find a 1994 French show on the site. And really long standing fans can jog down memory lane with Live Rarities, which goes back as far as 1993 for such highlights as a surprisingly potent performance of "Screenwriter's Blues."

In the course of making an enjoyable solo disc, Doughty reveals how much of Soul Coughing's brilliance was due to his collaborators.

Kufala is also a boon for fans of the gone-too-soon Morphine. Of the various spin-offs that arrived in the wake of bandleader Mark Sandman's death, all seem comfortable with the "official bootleg" thing. One of the label's offerings pairs a disc by Orchestra Morphine, the group drawn from Sandman's many side bands that considers itself "a living celebration" of his music, with one by Twinemen, the group that Morphine's surviving members formed for themselves.

Finally, Kufala distributes the Hi-N-Dry release Sandbox, which makes clear just how many pies Mark Sandman had his fingers in. A two-CD, one-DVD set, it sets out to demonstrate that all his music was of a piece. Rather than credit songs to a particular band (Morphine, Treat Her Right, the Pale Bros., Candy Bar, et cetera), the liner notes simply credit all of the set's performers in one big bunch and let the listener sort it out. It seems an uncommon sort of humility for rock musicians to make their own contributions so secondary to one man's vision. But then, the vision we're talking about - what Sandman called "low rock," discarding guitars for the rumble of a two-string bass and belching baritone sax - was one of the greatest sounds of the '90s.

By John DeFore


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