Who is Mike Doughty? The ex-frontman of Soul Coughing? An acoustic singer/songwriter? An acclaimed poet and writer? The latest offering from Mr. Doughty, whoever he may be, is The Flip Is Another Honey, a smattering of cover tunes ranging from John Denver to Cheap Trick to Guys and Dolls. And, as you may expect, Doughty will break some rules.
Doughty has never been one to shy away from varied influences, and he certainly flaunts this diversity right out of the gate with “Sunshine,” rapping between choruses of John Denver’s sampled voice. All of his main weapons are present: synthy textures, hip-hoppy grooves, fervent acoustic guitar strums, and his distinctly lo-fi poetic voice. “Country Roads” (Double the Denver, double the fun) has a cool, punky acoustic vibe to it, but his vocal delivery almost sounds a little too casual, or even bored. Roseanne Cash’s lush harmonies provide a welcome addition to the choruses.
Doughty’s mixtape takes some interesting turns as it rolls on. His version of Cheap Trick’s “Southern Girls” recalls a bluesy Tom Waits kind of production, with dirty electric guitar strums and stomp-and-clap drums; this blends nicely with “Running Back,” a Thin Lizzy tune, juxtaposing some wacky modern ambience against a rumbling string section.
He ventures out of his comfort zone with some old-school material, including “Send in the Clowns,” the Sondheim classic that has been sung by both Streisand and Sinatra. This instrumental gets off to a lovely start with a clumsy acoustic guitar, cello, a purring Wurlitzer and a few drops of piano tinkling, but as soon as it reaches the one-minute mark, it’s over. A nice fanfare to segue between songs, but also a bit of a tease.
“Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” the Guys and Dolls number, again features the Wurlitzer with some mysterious strings (contributed by Doughty’s longtime accompanist Andrew “Scrap” Livingston), and crescendos with an off-putting gang vocal at the end. Doughty’s approach to this Broadway staple is not to arrange it like the rest of his repertoire (“it’s non-ironic!”, his website boasts), but rather to accentuate its simple theatrics with a stripped-down instrumentation (once again ignoring basic guidelines of length, this one clocks in at 1:46). He continues this theatricality with Randy Newman’s “Mankind”: same bare instrumentation of Wurlitzer and strings, spotlighting his grainy voice like a solo actor onstage.
The second Cheap Trick cover, “Reach Out,” perhaps sounds most like a typical Doughty tune, with its simple groove and earnest lyric, at the end of which he segues into an acoustified techno groove of “Higher State of Consciousness” by Josh Wink. Hey, why not. He sings the Camille song “Ta Douleur” in its original French, and manages to get some heft into his vocal delivery. His pronunciation is actually pretty convincing, and the drum groove on this song may be the strongest on the record.
To say The Flip Is Another Honey is eclectic is an understatement. Much of the production is sparse, drawing the listener in, but it also gives the album an air of incompleteness. Some quick research on his website reveals that Doughty played virtually every instrument and sound on the entire record, save a few guest appearances; this explains a lot of the sparseness, dissonant piano lines, and overall simplicity. It also serves to expose his raw artistry as a producer and arranger, which is not unlike his strengths as a songwriter, even though he didn’t write these songs. At the end of the day, Flip feels like a pet project Doughty made for the simple joys of homage and craft, which his fans are sure to appreciate. In spite of his releasing an all-cover album, his originality definitely shines through.