1998: Soul Coughing - El Oso

I’ve been putting off writing this one. There’s just something unruly about the final Soul Coughing album, something rough-edged and unmanageable. Though it has some concise pop gems — “Circles” is one of most radio-friendly songs of the 90s — much of the record is rambling and relentlessly dark.

Fittingly, “Rolling” opens the album with a minor key drive. “I’m rolling,” lead singer M. Doughty repeats, making the phrase as much a warning as a declaration. “Misinformed” is next, followed by “Circles”: already the album is an odd mix of styles and tempos, even for the famously mix-happy Soul Coughing. This isn’t the coffeehouse jazz of “Chicago, Is Not Chicago,” or the pop sound collage of “Soundtrack to Mary,” this is, well, drum ‘n’ bass. This is the 90s needing a place to go, a way to die.

Not that El Oso is nothing but a slog. It can be great fun following the trio’s muses, from the hyperactive “Blame” to the mellow, tweaked-out “So Far I Have Not Found The Science.” The album excels most when Soul Coughing trusts their instincts to incorporate darker and lighter elements in one song, as in “Fully Retractable,” which layers a standard rock guitar phrase on top of a growling bassline, with a sprinkle of strings on top. It’s a big, fat, mid-tempo piece that somehow stays lighter than air, like a Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon.

El Oso hodge-podge feel is testament to its multiple producers. However, where Soul Coughing’s previous records were all about the kitchen-sink approach, El Oso has these different sounds partitioned off. There are the snare-heavy freakouts, the murky songs, and the few tracks that overlap the two.

I don’t remember much about hearing this album in 1998, other than putting “Circles” on repeat while driving around my hometown between years of college. I don’t think I listened to the rest of the album very often, and I don’t think I would have wanted to. Not because El Oso is bad, but because it’s a collection of confusion — it was end-of-the-century anxiety that I wasn’t quite ready for. By the time the final track “The Incumbent” comes along — “New York, New York, I won’t go back/ indelible reminder of the steel I lack/ I gave you seven years, what did you give me back/ a jaw-grind, disposition to a panic attack” — you have been through some shit.

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DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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