- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Mike Doughty

Golden Delicious

ATO Records

Gary Louris



The albums under review come from the frontmen of critically acclaimed 1990s bands from opposite ends of the indie-rock spectrum. The Jayhawks, led by singer-guitarist Gary Louris, emerged from Minneapolis as pioneers of the alt-country sound. Mike Doughty’s Soul Coughing exemplified downtown Manhattan scenesterism, with its sample-driven mix of acoustic bass lines, hip-hop rhythms and performance-poetry vocals. Indeed, the only element shared by these two records is the occasional Hammond B-3 organ part — a flourish that apparently is de rigueur on indie rock albums of late.

“Vagabonds” is the more ambitious of the two albums, drawing upon a range of American musical traditions. Electric guitars, folksy harmonica, church organ and the gentle twang of the pedal steel guitar all vie for the listener’s ear. The production by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes blends these elements into a sound that is at once earthy and elegant, rustic but not raw. To this mix, Mr. Louris brings a clear but soft tenor that can sound wispy and insubstantial. He’s challenged throughout the album by having to hold the stage on his own, without band mate Mark Olson providing the gorgeous vocal harmonies that characterized the Jayhawks’ sound.

He compensates by assembling an all-star group of Los Angeles-based singers who perform backing vocal duties under the name of the Laurel Canyon Family Choir. Among them are Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, Susanna Hoffs, the Chapin Sisters (Abigail Chapin, Lily Chapin and Jessica Craven) and Mr. Robinson. They pair brilliantly with Mr. Louris on the heartbreaking “She Only Calls Me on Sundays,” a lament from the point of view of a man who lost his love to alcoholism and despair.

“Omaha Nights” is comparatively upbeat with its soaring harmonies, driving guitar part and shimmering organ. At the same time, it sounds an existentialist note, as Mr. Louris sings, “All the days are numbered/ Are they slipping through my fingers/ Am I singing melodies that were meant for other singers.” His lyrics can seem portentous, even apocalyptic at times. Though the biblical tone meshes well with the American primitive rock-country sound, the more personal songs like “I Wanna Get High” and “Vagabonds” seem more deeply felt.

Mr. Doughty’s album doesn’t have anything like the grand arrangements or virtuosic musicianship of “Vagabonds.” The main instrument here is Mr. Doughty’s amazing, unusual, compulsively listenable voice. It combines the gravelly wisdom of Tom Waits with the adenoidal fearlessness of Jonathan Richman — and comes out sounding like Randy Newman gargling with broken glass. It’s an acquired taste, and if you’ve acquired it, there’s not much to be said against “Golden Delicious.”

He reprises the wry “27 Jennifers” from his 2003 EP, “Rockity Roll.” Mr. Doughty has a talent for scat, which he shows off on “I Just Want the Girl in the Blue Dress to Keep on Dancing,” with a riff that sounds a bit like the “pa-rum-pum” refrain from “The Little Drummer Boy.” On “Fort Hood,” Mr. Doughty seamlessly transitions from an upbeat, disco tune of his own composition into Galt MacDermot’s “Let the Sunshine In” from the musical “Hair.”

With this album, Mr. Doughty veers away from the experimentalism of his earliest work and from catchy slacker anthems such as “Circles” and “So Far I Have not Found the Science.” Nevertheless, his love of the sound of words is still at the core of his work. He has a poet’s love of repetition and variation and will swirl a word around in his mouth like an oenophile tasting a favorite vintage — as is the case on the uncharacteristically heartfelt “Nectarine (Part One).”

Though there’s not much more on “Golden Delicious” than Mr. Doughty and his bag of tricks, it’s more than enough.

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