Chuck E. Weiss

Sharps & Flats is a weekly music review roundup in Salon Magazine

Published March 2, 1999 7:00PM (EST)

| Equal parts Captain Beefheart, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Tom Waits and Taj Mahal, Chuck E. Weiss is a boon to all those demented blues aficionados who prefer their music served up with equal parts gibberish and attitude. Weiss himself describes the album as "twisted jungle music," which is as good a description as any.

For those of you who don't possess an encyclopedic musical memory, Weiss is not a total newcomer. He made a brief foray onto pop's landscape with a highly lauded, if difficult to obtain, 1981 demo. And before that, Weiss, along with Waits and Rickie Lee Jones, formed the nexus of a much-heralded Hollywood songwriter's scene. (Weiss was the subject of Jones' 1979 breakout-hit, "Chuck E's in Love.") Since the 1980s, Weiss has performed sporadically in and around Hollywood, mainly at what is now the Viper Room, which he helped Johnny Depp start.

"Extremely Cool" is all over the alt-roots map: From the gutbucket swagger of "Deeply Sorry," which Weiss concludes with a maudlin round of crocodile tears, to the zydeco swing of "Oh Marcy" to the bop stream-of-consciousness cool of "Sonny Could Lick All Them Cats," Weiss explores every blues nook firmly to the left of G. Love's antiseptic swagger.

Most satisfyingly, there is a specific sardonic, postmodern vein that Weiss taps as well as anyone. On the title track, Weiss lampoons the type of patron who frequents his beloved Viper Room: "Well I got a very large bank account/And a little small pee pee," he purrs before outlining his counterculture cred: "My sister she's a punk in New York City/She's a junkie who is rebellious ... If you want to find me it's not very hard to do/You just dial information and ask the operator for extremely cool." And "Do You Know What I Idi Amin," a gibberish poem backed by haunting sax lines, shimmering organ shadings and a throbbing percussive base, is one of the more viscerally satisfying songs I've heard in a while. After listening to it, I walked around chanting "Do you know what I Idi Amin Amin, do you know what I Idi Amin" for almost an entire day.

"Extremely Cool" will not be a breakout hit; indeed, Weiss'll be lucky if he even garners a handful of magazine reviews, and those will be a result of Waits' association. Which is too bad: Weiss, unlike so many cultural icons dusted off in a naked search for some quick cash, is the real deal ... or as real a deal as a middle-aged white guy with a shoddy voice and a major case of the fuck-yous can be. Which is good enough for me.

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The Roots

BY ADAM HEIMLICH | The gorgeous rap ballad "You Got Me," with guest vocals by Erykah Badu, is one of four breakthrough songs on this, the Roots' fourth album. Every track on "Things Fall Apart" boasts considerable sonic depth and sophistication, but "You Got Me" -- along with "The Next Movement," "Dynamite" and "Adrenaline" -- strikes that richness and warmth against a simple, undeniable pop melody to ignite a powerful groove. This is the same technique that made Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)" the grown-up hip-hop single of 1998, and it's no less winning here. But the Roots' experimental inclinations and undying reverence for hardcore rap survivors such as Gang Starr and Pete Rock make "Things Fall Apart" much heavier than the music of the winsome Hill.

"Step Into the Realm," "The Spark," "Double Trouble" (featuring Mos Def from Black Star) and "Act Too (The Love of My Life)" (featuring Common) are beat-and-rhyme workouts showcasing the formidable talents of rapper Black Thought and drummer ?uestlove, who've been the core of the Roots since they met at Philadelphia's High School for the Performing Arts in the late '80s. The group has spent the better part of the last seven years on tour, and it shows. Standouts in a genre where effort is often perceived as a sign of weakness, the Roots hark back to when acclaim, for black musicians, was earned through sweat.

Their choice of a road less traveled is paying big-time dividends. Black Thought and ?uestlove demonstrate a rare professional polish -- a command of nuances in voice and rhythm that only come with ardent dedication. "Things Fall Apart" frames the journeymen's mastery in a delicately engineered package that, contrary to its title, holds together uncannily well.

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The Avengers

BY GAVIN McNETT | Adult-pop chanteuse Penelope Houston has kept largely out of the punk nostalgia game since her first band, the Avengers, split up in 1979, but she's been fighting a bull market that makes Wall Street look like a Kiwanis raffle. With tracks by her contemporaries rocketing out of the vaults in 19 different directions, and with minor third- and fourth-wave bands burning up the reunion circuit (the Varukers!?), the last official dig into the Avengers archive was way back in 1983, to compile a full-length album as a belated farewell gesture. At the time it was said that there were no worthy Avengers recordings left unreleased. That might've been true then, but by today's standards, "Died For Your Sins" is a uranium mine. It collects nine ultra-rare songs for the first time -- some of which even Houston had forgotten existed. Two of the tracks here, "Teenage Rebel" and "Friends of Mine," had been given by drummer Danny Furious to the Swedish label Really Fast. But the rest haven't been heard anywhere besides on crummy bootlegs. Three ("I Want In," "Crazy Homicide" and "The End of the World") were so crummy that Houston and guitarist Greg Ingraham did the right thing and rerecorded them from the ground up. Damn fine gesture overall, even if certain backup vocals on the earlier rehearsal tapes sound suspiciously clear. Still, most of those songs drip as much with potential as with blood and bile. But "Teenage Rebel" suggests that Joan Jett was acutely aware of the Avengers' formula, and "Friends of Mine," at least, is absolute weapons-grade stuff. It has all the searing power and pro-grade tightness of the band at its peak, and Houston sobs the bridge like a buzz-cut Ronnie Spector. Hooks, you ask? Like a fishing trawler. The Avengers were a blitzed-out AM-radio-style band, not a stripped-down FM rock act, and while punk can get faster and more gnarly than this, it doesn't get much more musically whole.

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Kristin Hersh

BY JEFF STARK | The songs on Kristin Hersh's "Murder, Misery, and Then Goodnight" are the stuff of nightmares. The 12 traditionals recorded here spin yarns, deliver cautionary warnings and watch vicious murder with cool detachment. At the end, they coo goodnight. In a letter Hersh wrote to accompany the mail-order-only CD, she explains that her father used to sing these old songs to her when she was a little girl. She wanted to sing the same songs to her three boys. What's surprising about the selections is how different they are from her own songs. On her spare, poetic solo records -- and as she did for more than a decade with the keening and discordant Throwing Muses -- Hersh writes strange fragments and fuses them together. They don't tell stories; they create moody puzzles. Almost every song on "Murder, Misery, and Then Goodnight" maintains a strong narrative line: "Poor Ellen Smith" gets a ball in her heart; the nasally wife in "Three Days Drunk" outwits her besotted husband. But true to her own elliptical style, Hersh uses omission and intonation to make the songs muddier, more confusing. She lays a crystalline acoustic guitar pattern atop the simple a cappella lullaby "Mama's Gonna Buy" and gives "I Never Will Marry" -- a forlorn suicide note when recorded by the Carter Family -- a touch of the proud spinster. The songs here are constantly in flux, just as eight of them were when ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax recorded them in 1959 for the first two volumes of his "Southern Journey" series. The tradition, as Hersh knows, is passing the songs along, teaching them to her kids as her father taught her.

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BY JONATHAN COHEN | Chavez first came to prominence on the strength of its mid-'90s live shows, a showcase for guitarist Clay Tarver's tough-guy rock riffing and front man Matt Sweeney's falsetto-tinged vocal stylings. After being inked to Matador Records, the New York band took a more straightforward approach to its arty blend of dissonance and melody on its debut album, "Gone Glimmering." Chavez upped the ante even higher on 1997's "Ride the Fader," a consistently excellent record all around. But the band has toiled away for two years now, releasing no new music and generally playing shows only in New York. At Tuesday's Bowery Ballroom gig, the band's first in New York since late October, Chavez showed the rustiness that comes from such a spotty touring schedule but still oozed enough rock energy to keep the sizable crowd entertained. At least a third of the 18 songs performed were new, and although many of them showed promise and variety, they all sounded unfinished (the set list revealed that a few of them don't even have titles; the opening track was listed as "New Rocker"). "Age" was awesome, and the Who-esque "Matt's Finger" pointed the band in an uncharacteristically major-key direction. Band members seemed pretty out of sync with one another, but when things did click, the results were stupendous: the confident prog-metal of "You Must Be Stopped," and "Ride the Fader" standouts "Top Pocket Man" and "Flight '96," which closed the show. The soaring "Pentagram Ring," one of the band's earliest songs, fit in nicely in the middle of the set amid other "Fader" material and a string of new songs marked by Sweeney's hammered-on guitar licks. Quixotic opened the show in front of a barely peopled venue, offering a set of propulsive tunes that never met a melody they did like. A Smokey Robinson cover was a nice touch.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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