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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Many Muses of Mike Doughty

Music Feature

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Mike Doughty had one main goal while creating Golden Delicious, his latest release.

“I really went in there with the intention of making it more pared down, to make good songs and make the happy, happy sound,” the former Soul Coughing frontman says wryly. This simple rhyme of an answer displays his sardonic wit and quirky lyricism, the defining traits of his music.

Since Soul Coughing split in 2000, Doughty has refined his distinct, syncopated vocal delivery through his solo work, most notably on 2005’s Haughty Melodic, which yielded a radio hit in “Looking at the World From the Bottom of a Well.” The album was Doughty’s first with a backing band after a series of sparse, self-released acoustic efforts.

While Haughty Melodic presented an organic, sprawling sound, Doughty has intentionally reined it in on Golden Delicious, aiming for a more intimate feel. He limited the number of instruments used on any given track in an effort to better showcase the contributions and personalities of his backing band.

The first single from Golden Delicious is “27 Jennifers,” a reworked version of a song that Doughty originally released on an ATO Records sampler when he signed with the label in 2004. The new, “more radio-friendly version” features a tongue-incheek but masterfully performed bit of Van Halen-esque keyboard from band mate John Kirby that Doughty calls one of his favorite moments on the record.

Elsewhere, a familiar Hair! chorus is borrowed to great effect on “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In),” as Doughty repeats the phrase over church-like piano and a building crescendo of soulful background vocals. And on the album standout, “Fort Hood,” Doughty examines the psyche of returning soldiers for a rare anti-war song that resists hyperbolic sentimentality without sacrificing emotional depth.

“I went to visit Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] a couple of years ago and met a lot of wounded guys coming back from Iraq,” Doughty says. “I also grew up around the military. My dad was in the Army and I grew up in the post-Vietnam era, where there was a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder in the environment.”

Though the track deals with weightier subject matter than much of Golden Delicious, Doughty still manages to inject some levity into the lyrics: “You should be getting stoned with a prom dress, girl/ You should still believe in an endless world/ You should blast Young Jeezy with your friends in a parking lot.”

With formative musical influences ranging from A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory to his brief, but enlightening recording experience with Elliott Smith, Doughty lets his many disparate muses shine throughout the album, translating them into his own signature quirk.

“I always start with the music and the sounds of words,” he says of songwriting. “I don’t really start with meaning. Meaning isn’t necessarily a priority. “I guess I’m a bit of a wanderer in life musically,” he continues. “I have a lot of artists and songs that move me and I incorporate them into my own stuff. When a line or a riff is evocative, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense; it just needs to be there. I can’t worry about whether it’ll be accepted or people can wrap their heads around it.”

Perhaps he puts it best on “I Wrote a Song About Your Car” from Golden Delicious: “I strive to understand, not to be understood.” Mike Doughty’s Band headlines an 8 p.m. concert at Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, March 21, with openers The Panderers.