He was out of action for a while - so low he turned to writing record reviews - but he's on a major productive streak, prepping a new record, publishing a book of poetry, and writing film music.
Until that record drops, though, he's selling a fantastic live disc, Smofe + Smang, at www.mikedoughty.com. Doughty strips his nerd-hop down to just his voice and an acoustic guitar. Old favorites are mixed with new songs, which tend to be less snarky than tender, and are peppered with mid-song admissions like: "Okay um, so I should tell you, that I have not written a bridge for this song. So in its place, I will be playing this riff from a .38 Special tune from the '80s." The between-song chatter alone is worth the purchase price.
Former Bad Liver Ralph White, on the other hand, was never known to engage in banter from the stage. (Try getting a word in while Mark Rubin's going.) His first solo record, Trash Fish (Terminus), proves his interests were just as eclectic as his partners'; the acoustic outing features everything from fiddle to kalimba, Peruvian drum to ashtray, all played by White. Low-key and toe-tapping, there's not a hint of the Livers' frenzy here; call it transcontinental back-porch music. Though his cotton-mouth singing might alienate some folks, I think it adds to the disc's charm.
The Violent Femmes haven't broken up, but nobody's accusing them of firing on all cylinders these days. So leader Gordon Gano is pulling the old "write a record and get a dozen guest singers" trick on his "solo" disc Hitting the Ground (Instinct). No, Gano isn't likely ever to make a record as exciting as the self-titled Femmes debut (recently souped up by Rhino), but there are some pleasures here, like back-to-back tracks with old Velvets Lou Reed and John Cale, and the title tune, on which PJ Harvey does Gano better than the man himself.
Shearwater is a moonlighting effort involving two members of Austin's Okkervil River. Evidently, Okkervil bard Will Robinson Sheff felt that band was too upbeat for songs that had, in his tongue-in-cheek estimation, a "unique quality of being both crushingly depressing and boring enough so that you fall asleep before you kill yourself." On their new Everybody Makes Mistakes (Misra), Sheff and co-writer Jonathan Meiburg take somber snapshots of despair and the glimmer that hints at a way out of it; and while their pared-down acoustic settings are quiet and slow, they're less boring than Sheff boasts. More like Nick Drake at low tide - but with plenty of years ahead to move beyond gorgeous melancholy.
He's been on his own for 10 years now, but a lot of folks still know Chuck Prophet from his old band Green on Red. It's well past time for that to change. Prophet's solo releases put him in the league of guys like Joe Henry - musicians with the rare combination of serious songwriting talent and the producer's knack for picking the right unexpected sound or texture. He's a rocker at heart, and he's a helluva guitar player, but Prophet's records are arty enough that you wouldn't lump him with the roots-rockers. His latest, No Other Love (New West), isn't always as compelling as 2000's The Hurting Business, but the kinky thrills of "Elouise" and "Run Primo Run" make it more than worth the effort.
Prophet also twists the knobs on Hotel San Jose (Innerstate) by Go Go Market, a Prophet band showcasing his wife, Stephanie Finch. Described by one writer as "housewife goth," it's a hard-to-describe poppy blend that kind of reminds me of another songbird/producer union, between Sam Phillips and T-Bone Burnett. Equally at home with Brill Building balladry and Tuesday Night-vintage Sheryl Crow sass, Finch is the kind of singer who will rhyme "entertain ya" and "Lotte Lenya" with a straight face. Hey - that sounds like a rap-fragment from some unheard Mike Doughty song.