(Ato Records, CD)
Back in the '90s, Soul Coughing wowed fans with their wordy, avant-jazz-hop. Although they bore something in common with Beck and Cake -- also geeky white boys with hip-hop leanings -- nobody sounded quite like them. Former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty is now elbow-deep in a solo career, which finds him trading edgy originality for safe, singer-songwriter stylings. His latest effort, Haughty Melodic, isn't a bad album. But considering his past, it's a shame it's not better.
The disc kicks off with "Looking at the World From the Bottom of a Well." Acoustic and electric guitars strum and chime together to good effect, but gone is the sparse tension that was the hallmark of Soul Coughing's sound. Although Doughty still prefers simple backbeats, he employs a lot of musicians to flesh out his new compositions. His trademark monotone vocals are catchy, but his penchant for repeating a single phrase over and over keeps him from really blossoming as a songwriter.
Instead of developing his own sound, Doughty seems to be riding the coattails of several of his '90s peers. "Unsingable Name" is reminiscent of a Matthew Sweet ballad, while "Madeline & Nine," "I Hear the Bells" and "Sunken Eyed Girl" channel Counting Crows vocalist Adam Duritz. Considering the dredge that they've released lately, the Crows would probably love to have these tunes. Doughty should be able to come up with better, however.
And the imitation continues: "White Lexus" and "American Car" evoke The Wallflowers' Jakob Dylan. Although these are the two best cuts on Haughty Melodic, this is true only in the sense that The Wallflowers are better than Counting Crows.
The rest of the disc floats by in a generally pleasant manner, save for two absolute clunkers. "Busting Up a Starbucks" goes nowhere musically while for some reason taking a shot at forgotten "Dawson's Creek" star James VanDerbeek. Even worse is "Tremendous Brunettes," in which Doughty duets with Dave Matthews. Which of the two is using this as a credibility grab is tough to gauge.
If Doughty's intent was to make an album that didn't sound like his old band, he has succeeded. The problem is, it sounds like other people's old bands. Instrumental embellishment was a step in the right direction; now he needs to find his own voice. Doughty plays the Higher Ground Ballroom on Saturday, July 2, with Ray LaMontagne.