During his days with Soul Coughing it was easy to overlook Mike Doughty’s talent as a songwriter. The band’s idiosyncratic sound overpowered his clever turns of phrase and skewed world perspectives; even his melodies competed with the heavy production and looped samples of the group’s recordings. Who would have known, without reading his bio, that Doughty was a poet who studied with the legendary master Sekou Sundiata? But before you grab your headphones and head for the door let me remind you that poetry doesn’t have to be a dense abstraction of clashing ideologies or a mysterious conglomeration of seemingly unrelated images. Doughty’s poetry is witty, wicked and pared to the bone. During his solo career Doughty has allowed his songs to take center stage and he’s been identified on NPR as a “singer songwriter,” a title that didn’t seem to apply during the Soul Coughing era.
Golden Delicious is Doughty’s second album for Dave Matthew’s ATO label. The first, 2005’s terrific Haughty Melodic, set the bar for the writer and it proves to be a tough act to follow. But Golden Delicious has its fair share of great moments, a bigger band sound and broader audience appeal. The disc kicks of with “Fort Hood”, which could fall into the category of an anti-war song but that might be a bit simplistic. Doughty is an army brat; his father taught at West Point, and certainly his exposure to the soldier’s life informs this sketch of a youthful disabled vet pining for the opportunities he’s lost. Doughty borrows a line from Hair – “let the sunshine in”– and that Vietnam War-era riff lends a sad poignancy to the piece.
By the second track the characteristics that we associate with Doughty’s Soul Coughing days emerge. Doughty has always injected strange gibberish elements into the rhythms of his music. Vocal rhythm drives even the most erudite of his songs and this pops up on “I Just Want the Girl in the Blue Dress to Keep on Dancing” and “Put It Down” one of the best grooves on the record. We even get a bit of rap thanks to vocalist Stephanie Beatriz and Black Eyed Peas keyboardist John Kirby on “More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle.”
“27 Jennifers” is a number that fans have grown familiar with during Doughty’s live shows and here they get the full band effect, as well as a few electronic twists and turns. One of the best tracks is the break-up ballad “I Got the Drop on You.” Doughty sounds nearly ominous as he declares “sorry isn’t good enough.” Doughty’s voice is a curious instrument, a mix of graveled growling and quirky, repeated phonics as on “Nectarine” with its ding-dang chorus. I like him best on songs that are nearly beautiful. “Like a Luminous Girl” and “Navigating by the Stars at Night” are two of my favorites. Doughty is such a smart guy, but he doesn’t set out to prove that in every song. Chances are you’ll be drawn into a melody, happily mimicking the rhythms, before you catch the incredible wordplay that almost passed you by. Now that’s a poet.