In hindsight, the ’90s were pretty weird. People tend to remember the decade’s music in terms of its novelties ("Macarena"), its heavily hyped trends (grunge) or the Spice Girls. But a lot of what was happening just under the mainstream radar was a lot more interesting. And big record labels with money to burn certainly thought so as well; in the wake of Nirvana’s massive success with 1991’s Nevermind, every company with seemingly endless A&R resources was snatching up every last indie artist without a contract. There were success stories, of course, but the market only had so much room for an alternative rock hitmaker. So for every Beck or Cake, there were dozens of groups like Royal Trux, Boredoms, or even San Diego’s own Drive Like Jehu, who simply didn’t write radio-ready anthems and likely weren’t all that interested in doing so.
There were some interesting exceptions, however, like Soul Coughing. In 1996, the New York band landed their own hit with "Super Bon Bon," a sort of nonsensical, bohemian beat-poetry breakdown driven by an upright bass groove and frontman Mike Doughty’s off-kilter Dadaist lyrics: "Too fat, fat, you must cut lean/You gotta take the elevator to the mezzanine." There’s no question why it was a hit—it’s an incredibly catchy song—but it’s certainly weird. Yet it’s got nothing on the band’s debut album, Ruby Vroom.
Released in the fall of 1994, Ruby Vroom introduced Soul Coughing at a time when samplers and drum machines were starting to supplant guitars in alternative music. The Beastie Boys, a hip-hop group, had become staples of modern rock radio while the breakthrough of Beck’s "Loser" early on in 1994 had spawned a number of soundalikes—Primitive Radio Gods, Forest for the Trees (who actually cowrote "Loser") and Fun Lovin’ Criminals, to name a few. Soul Coughing emerged more as a parallel, their style a hybrid of beat poetry, jazz, hip-hop, and rock that doesn’t make a lot of sense on paper but is a hell of a lot of fun in your headphones. Take, for instance, the single "Screenwriter’s Blues," a spoken-word narration of Hollywood clichés and ennui featuring a number of one-liners like "We are all in some way or another going to Reseda, someday, to die" and "I am going to Los Angeles to build a screenplay about lovers who murder each other." Is it bizarre, perhaps too much so for a mainstream radio audience? Absolutely. But is it an absolute blast to listen to? You bet.
That’s true of the whole of Ruby Vroom, which turns 25 this year. I’m not sure how the album might sound to those who weren’t around the first time to hear it—without the context of the fairly absurd alt-rock explosion of the ’90s, it’s an odd one. But to these ears, it holds up well. The cartoonish Raymond Scott samples on "Bus to Beelzebub," the free-association absurdities of "Casiotone Nation," the surprisingly tender ballad "True Dreams of Wichita"—it’s all playful, innovative, and fun. A lot of other albums from the same era haven’t fared so well.
Mike Doughty is playing the album in its entirety on tour for its anniversary, and though I don’t ordinarily go for the album-anniversary concert gimmick, something about this one appeals to me. Perhaps it’s because Soul Coughing hasn’t and will likely never reunite, or that this album just hit me at the right time in my life. Maybe you just had to be there.
Other Recommended Shows This Week:
Veronica May Band, Ariel Levine, The Havnauts (Casbah, March 22): Three different local artists with three different styles and approaches will be sharing the stage on Friday. The Havnauts just won a handful of San Diego Music Awards, and with good reason—they’re one of the best new bands in town. But headliner Veronica May’s been around awhile, and her bluesy songs about her own mental health struggles are both compelling and deeply affecting.
Stay Strange presents: A Night of Strange Music (Black Cat Bar, March 22): The title isn’t misleading at all. Local curator Sam Lopez has been putting together showcases of truly peculiar sounds for many years, and every time I’ve gone to one, I’ve walked away from them having been exposed to something new and unfamiliar, and had a really fun time. Open your ears and your mind and see what happens.
Foals (The Observatory North Park, March 23): In terms of contemporary alternative rock, well, it’s honestly not that different from the ’90s; you still hear a lot of Foo Fighters, for instance. But Foals is one of the few Big Indie bands that have kept my interest, thanks to songs with big hooks and an even bigger focus on richly layered atmospheric elements.