Of all the people to share eleven letters of my name with, I could have done much worse than Mike Doughty. (Note my extra “er,” the crux of my hope as a successful songwriter since Doughty’s Soul Coughing hit it big in the ’90s.) Since quitting his band in 2000, Doughty has been playing solo shows and recording sparsely. This collection, released on Dave Matthews’s ATO Records, assembles 1996’s bare-bones Skittish, 2003’s more upbeat Rockity Roll EP and a handful of bonus tracks.
Doughty’s solo work sounds ostensibly like standard fare for the acoustic singer-songwriter, though his sense of rhythm and lyrical skill give him some edge. That Doughty studied poetry with Ani DiFranco’s mentor is worth mentioning, as if song titles including “Thank You, Lord, For Sending Me the F Train” and “All the Dirt” weren’t enough to pique some curiosity. His acoustic-guitar style doesn’t shine through as consistently (and in fact owes a bit to Mr. Matthews himself), but the hand that plucked out songs like “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” and “Circles” under Soul Coughing’s name can do little wrong.
Out of the two discs in this reissue, Skittish is the winner. The comparatively bare production allows Doughty’s songs to stand on their own, free of the cheesy drum machines and keyboard sounds that bog down Rockity Roll. All he seems to need is a slightly nasal voice, an acoustic guitar and loads of reverb and the man can make Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” sound like a coffee-shop staple.
Two straight discs of Doughty’s acoustic pop can grow more than a bit tiring, but taken individually, the songs are near brilliant: concise, musically consistent and full of narrative color. Still, even when Rockity Roll‘s varied instrumentation tries to switch things up, Doughty’s formula has already run its course. The same could be said for most Soul Coughing albums. If this release proves anything, it’s that these albums may be the rare solo efforts that can indeed hold a candle to their full-band counterparts. This package has the subtlety of an exclamation point in suggesting the potential that such an overlooked songwriter holds.