The 90s were certainly at no shortage of quirky rock bands (Faith No More, Brainiac, Ween, etc.) but Soul Coughing unquestionably had a place of their own. While dabbling in jazz and hip-hop was hardly unheard of, very few bands were willing to so fearlessly immerse themselves in each genre, while still remaining identifiable as a rock group.
Head soul cougher Mike Doughty led the group through their remarkably tasteful mix of blues, electronica, and the aforementioned styles with rock (and even later, combining alternative with elements of drum and bass), but what he most importantly brought to the proverbial table was his experience as a performing poet. Doughty's surreal, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and offbeat delivery proved to be a defining aspect of Soul Coughing's sound; he knew just how to simultaneously express his point, baffle listeners with seemingly non-sequitor references, and combine his voice with the song's beat and mood.
Screenwriter's Blues is a testament to this, as he builds up praise of moving out west for the menial aims of becoming a... well, screenwriter, as he refers to the greatness of fucking models only to derisively point out near the end that "The radio man laughs, because the radio man fucks a model too." While he may have come across as overly smarmy, Doughty proved quite willing to show his more sensitive side as well, namely on songs like the closing Janine, or the penultimate track Mr. Bitterness, on which he sounds so resigned that he is actually able to express genuine pain. The mere fact that he was so willing to drop the smart-ass facade which most alternative acts are (and have been) so unwilling to rid themselves of is incredibly refreshing, and the emotion shown pays off wonderfully. On True Dreams of Wichita, Drought muses over a messy breakup as a very busy, lively beat goes on behind him, with simultaneously cheerful and perturbing hints to both blues and jazz. While his talent does take the band quite far, there is even more to the group than one might expect.
This leads me to the other true standout of the band, which was keyboardist and sampler Mark de Gli Antoni. As far as sheer creativity with application of obscure samples in beats is concerned, he has truly gone unrivaled since this album came out - two particular examples are Bus to Beelzebub and Down to This. His brilliantly inspired manipulation of Raymond Scott's Powerhouse (if you're not familiar with the title, chances are excellent that should you hear the song, you'd recognize it instantly) constitutes the beat for Beelzebub, while Howlin' Wolf and the Andrew Sisters are paired to utter perfection for the latter. The song manages to sound like both alternative and hip-hop with a bizarrely accessibility, driven by a sharp funk while retaining a dark, almost disturbing quality in the background samples and Doughty's unsettling agreement that we take the ankles while he takes the wrists.
Ruby Vroom's fearless venturing has no doubt influenced a great many bands to run with their own ideas, as they had so admirably done. Soul Coughing's debut was an intensely original and highly influential piece of work, and while it was certainly well written and catchy, it deserved high marks for its sheer adventurous nature alone. A criminally underrated album, one of the most unique and intelligent debuts of the 90s.