Monday, February 4, 2008


I had a friend in the mid-nineties who was a huge Soul Coughing fan, and she made a serious effort to convert me. I never quite caught the bug, though I heard much to admire. I find it interesting that the Soul Coughing track that really captivates me is not from any of their albums, but was recorded specially for the soundtrack of the X-Files film (though they had been performing it live for years, and though to my knowledge it isn't heard during the film.) It is a lean little song, barely two and a half minutes, but coiled tightly like a jack-in-the-box, with twice the latent energy to release.

'16 horses' is noteworthy for how it is ingeniously crafted but has such a spontaneous air that it sounds like the band decided to try its hand at a poetry slam. Beneath its polished surface there is elegance in every detail. It's no secret that Soul Coughing were musicians who employed a much broader range than pop or rock; here they craft music that is spatial and even explores the relationship between sight and sound.

Musically, the whole arrangement of '16 horses' blurs the distinction between instrumental part and sound effect. The percussion sounds as much like a clanking Rube Goldberg as a drum kit; one imagines a frenetic, purposeless machine. The guitar part might be a soundcheck outtake, while the bass inhabits the opposite extreme of virtuosic improvisation. Throughout, a funhouse's worth of noises pass through: alarm clocks, keyboards howling like ghosts down a hallway, a burst of stadium applause so brief it's hard to recognize. The resulting whole is surprisingly self-evident, rather than cacophonous. Everything clicks together like the holes in the ream on a player piano, and we are put in the mind of old films, flickering and whirring by, giving us the illusion of motion even while we are aware that it's really a series of still images flashing past.

I was astonished when I finally noticed a truly unusual feature in this song. The first verse is accompanied by drums and a fairly conventional post-punk lead guitar part. But with the chorus, the guitar practically stops - excepting a brief reappearance at the second bridge, all we hear from it for the rest of the song are feedbacked effects that lurk in the mix. The bass, however, which has been completely absent, arrives and takes over with a wandering line that belongs in the jazz category even more than the funk. The bass ups the ante, but the transition is so organic as to be seamless.

Mechanics are on M. Doughty's mind, as the first verse makes plain. '14,000 times a second the speaker moves / Magnetism pushes the impulse through / But I can't keep that speed / I can't generate that frequency / What the sound pressure level means / wants a randomized electrons I can't read / And you're still not dancing.' Abruptly, the fourth wall of this song is punctured, and we are addressed directly by the singer. Doughty is identified as a songwriter who employs stream-of-consciousness, but the distinction between rambling and inspired spontaneity in lyrics is the same as it in poetry. We receive a personal invitation into this song, not as much through our minds as our bodies, and that is a key to appreciating '16 horses'.

'She came pushing sixteen horses': a one-line chorus that is an evocative if mysterious image. Is it a reference to a handful of traditional folk songs that mention teams of sixteen horses? It's not the same as putting the cart before the horse, but it switches the cause and the effect. Solving riddles is not the purpose of this song, in the same way that it is futile to interpret Kafka's 'A country doctor' literally.

And the images in the second verse do remind me of 'A country doctor'. 'I saw her and thought of her and thought of her / and I thought I heard a doorbell tone / And I thought I saw, thought I saw and thought I saw / you watching from the lawn / She went over bridges like the river was a dream.' This is the narrative of a nightmare, and we are seemingly whisked out the front door for a helpless ride to points unknown, if the ride ever ends at all.

What are we to make of this? The most technical language of the first verse is replaced by the most impressionistic in the second, and they are linked only by a mysterious woman who drives a team of horses in front of her. This is a dichotomy on many levels, between the rational and irrational, between certainty and uncertainty, between real and imagined, interior and exterior. They are fused by the place where solid objects and temporal sounds intersect: the speaker and the doorbell. As with Kafka, we are brought to this evocative place and then abandoned, left to our own conclusions. My sense is that just as we can know how speakers make sounds and not really understand, our lives are filled with moments that we can reduce with simplistic explanations or accept as greater, even sublime phenomena. I like to think that I choose the latter, at least some of the time.

It's entirely possible that, as with much stream-of-consciousness creativity, '16 horses' is a song that was discovered more than made; and, like horses pushed from behind, meaning is something applied afterwards, rather than before. Ambiguity is not a regular feature of pop music, but a song like this makes me wish it made appearances more regularly. I know that the pop song is one of the most perfect expressions of modernism, but Soul Coughing shows how those conventions can be turned on their heads to amazing effect. In the midst of a rather cumbersome soundtrack album, '16 horses' is a brilliant respite.

Soul Coughing official website