Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The music of Manhattan's Soul Coughing hasn't changed all that drastically since they were slotted as rapper wannabes on their 1994 debut, Ruby Vroom. M. Doughty still declaims rather than sings over a bed of textured polyrhythms. But on their third album, El Oso (Slash/Warner Bros.), history has caught up with them. In a musical landscape suddenly littered with swing-claiming hipster wannabes romanticizing a culture and beat they don't understand, Soul Coughing come across as the hipsters young half-asses want to be. Not that they care about horns, leaving that stratum of the soundscape to the chords and samples of keyboardist Mark De Gli Antoni. Their heart is Sebastian Steinberg's relentlessly unpredictable upright bass, which sets Soul Coughing's beat in motion while remaining far more a lead instrument than Doughty's vestigial guitar. Doughty's definitive contribution is vocals that milk all the music out of catch-phrases as general as "I'm rolling" and as specific as "You don't use words like that/Say Lousie is listening." "Deep slacker jazz," he once called this stuff. Dig its swing.


On Thompson Plays Joplin (Daring), living archivist Butch adds a welcome smidgeon of rhythmic muscle to the rags of deceased innovator Scott, who always felt constrained to act more genteel than was good for him. On Mama Don't Allow No Easy Riders Here (Yazoo), Depression-era masters of barrelhouse piano demonstrate where Thompson is coming from. Maybe the rocking Cow Cow Davenport and the wandering Speckled Red don't command all of Joplin's delicacy. But you sense that they could hold their own with him in a fair fight--one where they struck only the ivories, not each other.

Playboy, Sept. 1998


Aug. 1998 Oct. 1998