Starring . . . Slinky

In certain kinds of boy's music, a touch of repression, of uncool, of uptightness, life not on the edge, can cut its own mysterious groove. Even Dave Brubeck's collegiate jazz had some buzz just because he had the nerve to look (and sound) so square, and punk stages crawled with nerds who, searching for pimple remedies in their chemistry sets, discovered orgasm elixirs. Maybe it's just a version of the surprise element. Or maybe it works like black-and-white film--the fewer distractions in the frame, the more pure pattern starts to look like a goddamn star. Soul Coughing travel this territory: they're bohemians-next-door whose personalities, however intense, play straight man to the music.

Here we have drummer Yuval Gabay of previous Morrocan-rock experiments, keybs/synth man Mark de Gli Anthoni with his M.A. in music composition, Sebastian Steinberg playing (as I heard remix luminary Arthur Baker kvell at a 1995 Wetlands gig) "Stand-up bass as lead instrument! Interesting!" (It was.) And of course M. Doughty, lead singer and lyricist, with his weakling looks and eel-like moves, conversational timbre and cut 'n' paste lyrics, his perpetual exasperation and the private joke in his modifications of hiphop rhythms. These are arty boys, known for sampling seagulls and the Andrews Sisters, constructing songs around phrases that mean nothing, like "Step aside, let the man go through." But basically this band's vision resides in the bouncing giant Slinky that is their groove, and their disproportions actually help the mix, for as the '50s taught us, the more you look like Tom Ewell, the better the chances your date will get her dress blown to her chin over a subway grating in Times Square.

Soul Coughing formed in 1993 when failed folksinger-cum-poet Doughty gave up on his big ambitions and gathered a band of Knitting Factory musicians that could maybe get club gigs. Their point of consensus was "dark deep low-end" and a fat sound. To the group's delight, they began to draw a regular crowd that actually danced, and they soon released Ruby Vroom, which sold a creditable 150,000 copies, then Irresistible Bliss, up to 250,000 (though nothing compared to Cake, whose Soul Coughing clone "The Distance" generated platinum-plus album sales, not to mention renewed respect for Soul Coughing from their own label). El Oso, whose single, the goofily winsome "Circles," already has airplay, is a breakthrough bid.

Let me make clear right off that I like this album and hope it does break 300 so they can keep making more, but then, I had no problem with the first (prefer it to the second, actually). But the breakthrough strategy intrigues me. El Oso's tone is if anything more complex than its predecessors', which open on true songs, with hooks, while "I'm Rolling" hauls out La Groove as a sinuous, vaguely tabla-like installment in a longer narrative in which, though "Circles" is the songiest song they've ever written, a lot of the other cuts seem like compositions. Still, as befits their ties to DJ culture, this band understands pace, and shit moves.

Experts at modulation, they really milk the tension/relief, using annoying repetitions and pounding piano to make surprisingly sweet threads of melody sound like juice in the desert. This band understands annoyance--if it doesn't kill you it will make you strong. Musical references abound--old radio soap opera, skating rink, Buddhist chant--but the most delicious sound is the sort of beep-beep that used to go with spacemen in ridiculous cartoons, and there is a free-floating outerspace aeriness that has no obvious hookup with any lyric--well, I guess there are songs about drugs. But the most recurrent motif concerns machinery, motors, car trouble, and other smash-ups.

"I knew the gas was gone but I had to rev the motor," muses Doughty on "Maybe I'll Come Down," near the album's center. "When the gas is drained just wreck it, you insured the thing," is the single's comforting advice. When all else fails there is always: "Blame! Is the cure! Cure anything! Throw the rudder down! Throw the rudder down!" Doughty likes to repeat phrases until they either accrue meaning or lose it altogether or both. And, right, if stand-up bass can play lead, lyrics can be rhythm tracks--believe these guys when they insist their work is a collaboration.

Still, Doughty has a slightly different presence on this album. If he previously revealed all the vulnerability of a can of Jolt cola, here we see weary exhortations to self-discipline and a sense, if not exactly of self-doubt, then of self-questioning. If Soul Coughing want to reach beyond their club base, the next ring is presumably a less hip college crowd, a Dave Matthews crowd, and I wouldn't put it past them to have figured out sounding personal is one way to that audience.

The references do seem personal on "Maybe I'll Come Down"--someone finds himself mysteriously stranded, perhaps by the highs of the musician's life. Steinberg's lush bass builds a melancholy, wintery mood. But it's De Gli Anthoni who seems to grasp the big picture, striking a chilling run of piano churchbells, as if to say, "Watch out, Herr Faust!" And then he throws in a set of sci-fi effects to make sure no one takes himself too seriously at the denouement. Bass gave the bounce that first put this band on the club map, but the keyb/synth man is El Oso's MVP, adding breadth and tone to both the serious and the ridiculous. On "Misinformed," Anthoni fiddles in the background like one of those old cartoon characters, say Bimbo or Koko, punching all the wrong buttons on the spaceship, with backfires and explosions; it might be the funniest thing on the album, though "Blame" is fairly nutty.

Speaking of Bimbo, he's doing stand-in for the star slot Soul Coughing, that band of funny straight-men, have kept empty, as a matter of both necessity and principle. On video that's a problem, since by definition music is not enough. The "Super Bon Bon" promo played the David Byrne card, putting Doughty in oversized jacket and stilts. But the organization nailed the concept for El Oso (who turns out to be a forgotten cartoon bear, Mickey's rival) and produced a commercially available seven-track video in which vintage 'toons are cut 'n' pasted to Soul Coughing material. Dachsunds chase themselves on "Circles," the road chases Bimbo on "Rolling." Cool and canny, like our boys. With their irreverence, their two-dimensionality, their passion for pure pattern, Soul Coughing have always made what the video title says: Sound Cartoons.

Village Voice, Oct. 6, 1998