In the mid-'90s, when the word "alternative" was being subjugated and applied to every two-bit modern rock artist with an out-of-tune guitar (see Better Than Ezra), Soul Coughing released what will probably go down as one of the most alternative albums of that decade. Alternative to rock, alternative to jazz, and the antithesis of radio friendly, Ruby Vroom unleashed fourteen musical oddities that could have, and should have, changed the face of American music -- had anyone being listening. Maybe "unleashed" is too strong a term. Maybe the band simply lit a stick of musical dynamite and walked away, and only a few lucky people were around to witness the blast.
I was one of those fortunate few, lucky enough to see them on what was likely their first national TV spot -- a gig on MTV's short-lived Jon Stewart Show. They performed "Down to This", their sample-heavy anti-hit that almost made them accidentally famous for fifteen minutes, except that radio stations justifiably didn't know what to do with it, or them. Led by M. Doughty, a lanky spoken word poet who vented rather than sang -- more a Lenny Bruce than a Henry Rollins -- and underscored by the fierce upright bass of Sebastian Steinberg, the band didn't present their case so much as perform it in all its glory and then casually look around to see if anyone had noticed. You got the feeling, from both their album and their live shows, that they really never cared if they hit it big, and in fact seemed much happier embodying the obscure underbelly of modern rock than being poster boys for a new genre that could be compartmentalized in a SPIN column.
Ruby Vroom starts off with a bang, with one of the most grimace-inducing-in-hindsight lyrical performances in recent memory. Doughty croons, as only he can, "a man / flies a plane / into the Chrysler Building." This not only sets the tone for the baker's dozen dirty, greasy, film noir-esque songs that follow, but it seems eerily prescient given recent events. Right insight, wrong landmark.
"Sugar Free Jazz" slows it down a hair without losing sight of the the menacing undertone that's unspooling. Again, Doughty invents a protagonist a few years ahead of his time, "schools he bombs, he bombs." Corporate brainwashing takes a bow on "Casiotone Nation", in which "five percent nations" of everything from lumps in my oatmeal to nipple clamps rise up to remind us that everyone is really just a logo with expendable cash. The societal slavedriving continues on "Blueeyed Devil", in which the skinny-tied God Among Salesmen slugs down fruit juice, "extra tall / extra wide". The devil theme is carried through "Bus to Beelzebub", a song built around a myriad of samples by keyboardist M'ark De Gli Antoni. Never before and possibly never since has a keyboard samplist been so integral to the inner vision of a band. Think I'm joking? When the band performed in Pittsburgh, De Gli Antoni blew out two amplifiers within an hour of each other, and each time Doughty stopped the show and did an acoustic call-and-response with the crowd while the stage crew made hasty repairs, rather than attempting to sally forth without their trademark noise generator.
"True Dreams of Wichita" could almost be the album's forgettable track, if it weren't also the sole hopeful note before cult-favorite "Janine" at the album's end. After "True Dreams", the album delves down darker and deeper than anyone could have expected, spearing you between the eyes with the raw bilious honesty of "Screenwriter's Blues". Spitting detail and world-weary cynicisms more sharply than anyone since anti-rock godfather Frank Zappa, Doughty takes us on a trip across Los Angeles with someone on his way to "fuck a model from Ohio whose real name you don't know," listening to a talk radio DJ tell the truth about America as the smog sets in. "Moon Sammy" is the funkiest, ass-shakingest groove ever written about a security guard who kills himself by drinking drain cleaner. "Supra Genius" teaches us to fear those who think too much -- Doughty himself included? "City of Motors" is another parable of despair, strapped behind minimalist jazz and horn samples dragged through a whirlpool to hell, where a murderer meets his end by way of a stray ash and a gas pump. "Uh, Zoom, Zip" actually succeeds in being the disc's most forgettable track; it's probably the product of Doughty's over-indulgence, but still better than half of the band's later output.
"Down to This" should have been a hit single. The Andrews Sisters have never sounded as foreboding as when they hauntingly chant "no, no, no", while Doughty urges his accomplice on, "you get the ankles and I'll get the wrists / it comes down to this." His delivery is at its witty best here: "I could get lost in a lunchbox / lie low in the mittens in the lost and found." Yuval Gabay, the masterful drummer whose rhythms provide the backbone for Doughty's lyrical hallucinations, shines clear and bright on "Mr. Bitterness", the battle cry for every man who has ever gone home alone without the object of his momentary lustful obsession -- the kind of woman who drinks "a Velvet Crush / and that's Kool-Aid and gin / casing the clientele like a relentless cameraman / she is elsewhere." And that man goes home to his thoughts of "Janine", a love song laid over an answering machine recording of a girl singing about lemon trees, strummed with an acoustic guitar. Doughty, more than anyone else, should be able to appreciate the lost and bitersweetly remembered loves of the world.
Despite three full albums and numerous soundtrack contributions, Soul Coughing remained all but unknown by the general music-listening public until their amicable breakup in 2000. Eight years of this kind of musical fusion would probably burn out even the most fiercely dedicated artists, as the waning quality of the band's subsequent offerings suggests. By the end of their run, their extremism had been diluted into an almost-pop sound, evidenced by their commercial near-hit "Circles", on which almost all the fight they once put up seemed to be gone. But that fight, that acerbic wit and that gut-thumping, bluesy, jazzy, rhyme-spewingly funky roar is preserved forever on one of the most unheralded albums of the '90s -- and the devil on my shoulder continues to whisper that the boys just might prefer it that way.
-- Justin Kownacki