The shift from the comparatively stark "M" of his Soul Coughing days to the more fleshed out "Mike" corresponds with Doughty's newfound confidence on Haughty Melodic. His first band release after a few austere solo albums sounds professional, slick and just a little too polished to make these songs connect with the twisty, near avant-garde lyrical nature that has historically been his strength.
Like Steely Dan's best work, you have to listen harder to discover the somewhat oblique concepts and musical nuances under the sheen of songs such as "Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well."
Producer Dan Wilson, a Semisonic ex, emphasizes Doughty's dry, talk-sung delivery, but the sense is that this singer/songwriter guise is a ruse to sneak his music back on the radio, something he was only partially successful doing in the Soul Coughing era. The involvement of Dave Matthews, who owns the ATO imprint, is also worth noting.
Regardless, it works more often than not, thanks in large part to Doughty's irony-laden vocals. Like Donald Fagan, Randy Newman and that guy from Cake, his voice comes with a sly smirk and the crafty sense that he understands just a little more about the complexities of life than we do.
Mike Doughty plays the Variety Playhouse, Tues., Sept. 20, 8:30 p.m. $15. Chris Glover opens. 1099 Euclid Ave. 404-524-7354. www.variety-playhouse.com.