Soul Coughing Fleece and Firkin, Bristol

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The Independent Online
Just when you thought hip rock bands were a thing of the past, just as you were celebrating the death of the New York avard-garde and rejoicing in the fact that soon there won't be any more fatally self-conscious, gestural, white-boy funk derivatives, a new one pops up. Damn! If only Soul Coughing weren't any good, the future could take place according to plan. The only trouble is, they're great, in a typically self-conscious, gestural, white-boy funk way.

Singer M Doughty is the proverbial geek front-man come back to haunt us from out of the past. But don't, whatever you do, mention David Byrne. Jerky of body, his number one crop exposing a frighteningly intelligent- looking cranium, Doughty twists and turns at right angles to himself in classically geeky manner, sometimes with guitar, sometimes without. His lyrics are barked-out deconstructed gobbets of tabloid headlines, repeated to the max, repeated to the max. They may even be poetry, poetry, poetry. Blessed with charisma as well as weirdness, he has the bottle to talk to the audience and painstakingly build a rapport. It's art alright, but mercifully painless.

The rest of the quartet provides the pulse for Doughty to decorate. A double-bass limbers along in loose jungle metre, joined by drums which mix dance rhythms with heavy tom-tom snaps that rock. The keyboard player knows his samples so well that he mimes to their words as they appear. Snatches of opera, bits of cartoon music, weird musique-concrete abstractions - all serve to thicken up the sound in a quite entrancing way.

But in truth, Soul Coughing are not new. With two albums behind them (last year's Irresistible Bliss following up 1994's debut Ruby Vroom), and a fan-base which allegedly encompasses both Prince and Uma Thurman, they are in danger of being so hip that they're passe before they're popular. A British West Country connection is, therefore, poised to rescue them courtesy of new single mixes by Propellerheads, and recent recording sessions with Mercury-Prize nominated Roni Size and the Reprazent crew. Tonight's rumoured mix-up with Size did not occur (though he was in the audience), but DJ Die and MC Dynamite provided the opening and closing sound system.

The dance connection is one that throws Soul Coughing's manifold charms into a sharp but not entirely flattering relief. Doughty is brilliant and the band are great, but an audience reared on unremitting hard-drive beats might well find them a bit too human. For 20 minutes, they were stunning - one of the best bands ever. For the next 20, once you had learned the formula, they were only so-so. The final 20 minutes was great again, but there were few surprises left. Sadly, the shock of the new isn't what it was.

Phil Johnson

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