The realm of the indie, artsy experimenter is riddled with deliberate abstractions, unidentifiable sounds, half-truth lyrical non-sequiturs, and occasional glimpses into beauty. As frontman for the intellectual hipster fringe-rockers Soul Coughing, Mike Doughty often hid behind a veil of droning electronics effects, and although the band put out three albums of smart rock-folk-funk-jazz, access to the core of the songs felt more like a privilege than a right afforded by twelve bucks.
Refreshingly, the only half-truth on Haughty Melodic, Doughty’s third solo release and first on major label ATO, is half the title. Shucking his former band’s often-exclusionary approach, Doughty abstains from the haughty hipster edict on Melodic, instead delivering clean, direct folk-funk tunes while retaining his impressive and notorious lyrical quirks. The songs are earnest and instantly memorable, with enough left-field nuances to set them apart.
“I’m done with elephants and clowns,” he sings on “American Car,” perhaps an unconscious allusion to Soul Coughing’s circus-like onslaught of audible manipulation. Songs such as “American Car,” “Madeline at Nine” and “Unsingable Name” show Doughty satiating his inner yearn; much of Melodic is love songs, but it’s not campy. His wry, literate style and sarcastic circular delivery never allows for parody; his stream-of-consciousness fragments find a steady current, even when name-dropping James Van der Beek and “them sisters from Sister Sister” on the poor-man’s empowerment call to arms, “Busting up a Starbucks.”
In moments the album threatens monotony. Doughty’s voice can wear thin and, as Soul Coughing fans will surely notice, there’s a noticeable absence of stylistic variation. For fans of Soul Coughing’s near perfect 1996 album Irresistible Bliss, think “The Idiot Kings” or “Soft Serve” and forget about the jazz-funk freak-outs of 1994’s Ruby Vroom. There’s certainly something to be missed in this simpler direction, but not too much. With free-wheeling woodwinds and drum-machine embellishments, “Starbucks” stabs at experimentation. But to fault him for not honoring the abstract is unfair; it’s clear Doughty’s focus is on the final product, not the machine parts.
With Melodic, Doughty instead tried to make the pop album his former band never quite made, even enlisting pop-prophet Dave Matthews (and ATO founder) to duet on “Tremendous Brunettes.” That Doughty overshadows Matthews’s over-compensating verse with his own quiet plea of solitude says more for Doughty’s simplicity — and Melodic’s accessible beauty — than any thesaurus chorus could.