Mike Doughty: Golden Delicious

By: Tim Newby

Former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty‘s greatest strength has always been how he uses his lyrics and words as an instrument, using lyrical ambiguity to ensnare or the way his words are the rhythm and rhyme that carries each song along, Doughty has always been defined by the way he wielded words with such power. On Golden Delicious (released February 19 on ATO Records) his words are as powerful as before, but at times buried beneath a barrage of overproduction that only serves to lessen their impact.

Doughty has always been at his best when he lets his minimalist sensibilities lead the way, whether with the gorgeously weird Soul Coughing or during his time as a solo artist, touring the country in his car playing shows with nothing more than his words and a simple funky guitar riff or two he dubbed “small rock.” On his new album, his band sometimes overpowers his songs, and the number of “bells and whistles” employed only serves to clutter his landscape. “27 Jennifers,” a longtime live staple, is recycled from his previous album, Rockity Roll, and does not benefit from the new full band arrangement. The ’80s sounding overblown keyboard solo that shows up mid-song is cringe worthy and may make you wonder if you accidentally slipped in Europe‘s “The Final Countdown.” The gimmicky “More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle” swipes its melody and obnoxious repetition of the title from LL Cool J‘s “Jingling Baby,” and I am pretty sure that’s a bad thing.

It’s a shame that Golden Delicious is burdened with so much extra noise because it muddies an album composed of really good songs. Doughty demonstrated this on his recent solo tour, where he debuted a number of these songs. The “small rock” format showed these tunes were able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of his impressive catalog. This format still rears its head occasionally on Golden Delicious. “I Got The Drop On You” with its simple stripped down approach allows Doughty’s vocals and words to move to the forefront as he intones over and over, “Sorry isn’t good enough.” There are also moments when he does employ his band to great affect, allowing them to provide a fine foundation he can work over. On “Wednesday (No Se Apoye),” they play with a subtle touch.

Despite the over production on much of Golden Delicious, his lyrics still stand out as modern poetry. This time around his words do not have the same anger and edge he displayed as a young man, perhaps due to age and maturity, though he still has an unparalleled ability to create nonsensical images that invoke a real sense of emotion. His images are less ambiguous on Golden Delicious than in the past, but he still develops word pictures that other songwriters can only dream of crafting. Where in the past he may have hidden the meaning of things behind layers of wordplay, now he’s right in your face. He attacks the Iraq War with unflinching sincerity in “Fort Hood” (an Army base in Texas that has lost the most soldiers in Iraq), singing about the loss of youth and innocence: “Blanked out eyes and the blanked out sound/ See them coming back, motionless in an airport lounge/ You should be getting stoned with a prom dress girl/ You should still believe in an endless world.” At other times he sings of simpler subjects, such as meeting a beautiful girl in a record shop (“I Just Want the Girl in the Blue Dress to Keep on Dancing”) but with the same straightforward honesty.

Golden Delicious is a good album, continuing in Doughty’s unique manner, but it is tough to hear the self-proclaimed purveyor of “small rock” so fully produced. Part of the appeal of Doughty has always been the way you didn’t have to hunt for his words. They were right there for you, waiting to be discovered. But, this new produced sound hides his intentions, taking away the overall experience. It’s a new sound that does not seem to fit Doughty, and can leave you feeling skittish.

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