1998, Music

El Oso (1998) by Soul Coughing

Members of Soul Coughing are quoted in The Secret History of Rock, the pre-internet guide to weird and rarely heard rock music which was my bible for a long time. I made it my mission to listen to all the bands that were featured in that book, but I also made it my mission to listen to all the contemporary bands in the book quoted speaking about these past bands. I knew nothing of Soul Coughing, but they were in the book so they had to be cool.

It took me close to two decades to get around to listening to them and, well, whatever my expectations were, I was surprised. I literally had no idea what they sounded like, I just knew they had a cool name. I was not at all ready for this.

The sound is a mixture of alternative rock and “drum and bass” (for a lack of a better genre). Rumour has it this is their most accessible album, which is funny because this is not what you normally describe as accessible; the melodies are hardly the catchiest and the lyrics – often described by critics as closer to poetry – are often obscure or at least freely associative enough as to not confirm to traditional song lyrics. (I thought my favourite line: “Freezer burn, all else is only icing.” I’ve had that experience. But it turns out I misheard it, and I’m less sure what it means now.) Though it has a reputation as accessible, it’s hard to see that this record, their last, would really convince a whole lot of people to get behind the band.

I always appreciative of weird fusions and this is a particularly weird one. Having only heard their final record, it’s hard to imagine what came before, or how such a weird combination of genres came to be. But I appreciate the fusion on an intellectual level. I cannot really imagine another band that sounds like this, and that’s a complement.

But I’m not sure this is something I could ever love. There are elements I like: the sparse sound, the guitar (when it’s present) is ragged enough for me, the rhythm tracks are pretty insistent. But I don’t love Doughty’s voice (not a surprise) and I suspect that a better singer might win me over. Also, because of the R&B and electronic influences, the rhythm tracks are pretty repetitive and I generally like more variety.

I really don’t know what to think about this. I suspect that at least some of my resistance is my completely untethered expectations – cool band name, read about them in a cool book, didn’t have the faintest idea what they sounded like – but some of it could have just been my mood. I suspect that with time I could come to quite like them. I know I appreciate them – nobody sounds like this – and I know that what they are doing here is valuable and interesting and unique and a path few bands dared take. But I just don’t know that I like it.


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