I must preface this review by saying that I have been a Mike Doughty fan for an incredibly long time. I first became a fan when I discovered Soul Coughing; at that time, I had grown tired of grunge’s (by then) floundering, poor self-image (the genre as a whole really had difficulty regaining its strength and composure after the death of Kurt Cobain) and was looking for something which was just different and as exciting as I had found Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains a couple of years prior. What I ultimately found was Beck, the Eels and Soul Coughing – but the band who best fit the bill for my taste at the time was Soul Coughing; the group was a little dark and had an ominous edge about them, but also a fantastic rhythm which made the darkness roll along both anthemically and hypnotically. I was hooked right off – I followed them (and the Eels – less so with Beck after Odelay) and was genuinely upset when I heard the band had broken up.
Because of all the events above, I was genuinely curious when I heard that singer Mike Doughty had made a solo album, but approached it cautiously. By then, I had already heard and both loved and loathed some of the solo albums which had sprung from the biggest alt- and grunge names (I thought Krist Novoselic’s first post-Nirvana band, Sweet 75, had promise and was upset when it went undeveloped, had thought James Iha’s solo bid arrived stillborn, and still think Scott Weiland’s first solo album was the only good thing he ever did while Jerry Cantrell proved he was a star with Boggy Depot), and was interested to see what Doughty had to offer.
As it would turn out, Haughty Melodic would end up being my far-and-away favorite of the first wave of grunge and alt-solo albums, and it continues to get regular play in my home. Unlike so many of the other artists of his ilk, Doughty doesn’t try to throw any distance between himself and his “old sound” – in fact, he embraces it; all he really does is soften up the more jagged and atonal edges of Soul Coughing’s sound (the scraping cello, the dirty guitar tone) and throw in some warmer, more melodic sonics in a bid to appeal to a larger audience and perhaps begins a subversive movement within them. It was a bold move, but also a very appealing one; while Haughty Melodic did not ultimately represent a breakthrough on the same level that Irresistible Bliss did in 1996, it did offer a new artistic beginning which far surpassed the earnest offerings of other artists who had left the bigger names they had been associated with and were trying to stand on their own.
Now eleven years after Haughty Melodic‘s original release, Doughty and ATO Records have reissued the album with two additional tracks, liner notes written by the singer and a remixed, remastered presentation – as is the style these days. Not surprisingly, the new liner notes brim with bright memories of the times around the creation of Haughty Melodic – rendered beautifully with Doughty’s authoritative voice (which remains exciting and the same as it was in the pages of Doughty’s memoir, 2012’s The Book of Drugs) – and the two added tracks appear as delightful (if not essential) souvenirs. The catch (which quickly becomes a hang-up and eventually proves to be an insurmountable obstacle) here is really in the album’s remixed, remastered regular run-time; the heightened bass levels which run the length of the album are so high that they seem to clip and so totally distract from every movement or turn the album makes. Not only that, the manner in which the low end has been bumped up varies from song-to-song, thereby making it impossible to filter out with an EQ. On songs like “Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well,” “Unsingable Name” and “American Car,” the kick drum is raised so much in the mix that it feels like it’s starting to clip at least, and seems like it may threaten to kick through a listener’s eardrum at the worst moments. Conversely, the entire low end of songs like “Busting Up A Starbucks,” “”I Hear The Bells” and “Sunken Eyed Girl”i – all the bass, drums and some of the guitars too – converge into a muddy mess which Doughty’s voice wades through laboriously. It’s actually kind of unbelievable how muddled the reissue is; after having difficulty with the first couple of tracks, I tried several different sets of headphones to see if it was my equipment which was the problem and then tried different pre-set equalizers. All attempts to rectify the mix on the CD proved to be futile though – there was just no way to reduce the low end and not simultaneously leave everything else sounding thin.
It was hard to write this review. I feel compelled to reiterate that I genuinely love Haughty Melodic but, no matter what I tried, I simply could not rectify the problems I found with the new mix that this reissue features. Now, the upside is that it’s still possible for people to find copies of the original, 2005-issued CD – but it’s unfortunate that they’ll really have to keep a sharp eye now to make sure they’re buying a copy of the album which came from 2005. Perhaps Doughty and producer Dan Wilson will re-think what has happened to Haughty Melodic here and reissue it again – with a different mix once more. We can only hope.