Album: Chuck E Weiss

Old Souls & Wolf Tickets, Slow River/Rykodisc

Friday 18 January 2002 01:00

Best known as the eponymous anti-hero of Rickie Lee Jones's "Chuck E's In Love", Chuck E Weiss is a Los Angeles legend, a close pal and Tropicana Motel neighbour of Tom Waits and later Johnny Depp, with whom he opened the Viper Room. Compared with the 18-year gap between Weiss's debut album and his 1999 sophomore effort, Extremely Cool, this third offering follows with what may appear unseemly haste, though such considerations are rendered largely moot by the timeless nature of his "twisted jungle music" – by which he means not the hyperactive drum'n'bass rhythms of such as Goldie, but a fetid, swampy gumbo of jazz, blues, R&B, beatnik jive-talk and New Orleans Mardi Gras voodoo music.

The latter strain bookends Old Souls & Wolf Tickets (a term meaning "causing trouble") with "Congo Square at Midnight" and "Dixieland Funeral" – the former a typical Mardi Gras Indian call-and-response chant, the latter a more stately expression of Chuck's desire for a Crescent City send-off complete with second-line marching band. In between are crammed all manner of black and blue musics, from the hypnotic, striding riff of "Tony Did the Boogie Woogie", nagging away incessantly like an unscratchable itch, to the smoother cabaret mode of "Sweetie-O", a relaxed, jazzy tribute to a woman so irresistible, she'd "make a priest kick in a stained-glass window". As proof of his long-time R&B authenticity, there's even a boogie duet recorded with the blues godfather Willie Dixon in 1970 – when Weiss was billed as "Little Chuck E Weiss" – which sits so naturally among the more recent work, it could have come from the same sessions.

The basic jazz/blues approach is broadened further by oddments such as "Piggly Wiggly", on which Chuck squawks hoarsely over ragged banjo and organ, and "Anthem for Old Souls", in which he bids "fare thee well" to "all me old mateys" in barnacled Tom Waits style, with a ramshackle shanty of tuba, mandolin and toy piano. His musicians adapt easily to whatever form Weiss needs, with special mentions for the trumpeter John Herron, whose muted licks add their own veneer of sleaze; Chuck's (now sadly deceased) saxophonist chum Spyder Mittleman, switching easily between yakety-sax raunch and cocktail-hour smoothness; and the guitarist Tony Gilkyson, whose terse Telecaster stitches furnish suitably onomatopoeic accompaniment to "Two-Tone Car (An Auto-Body Experience)".

Cars, girls and good times predominate in Chuck's songs, which are peopled with a Lord Buckley-esque cast of misfits and lowlifes such as "Sneaky Jesus", who "hung out at Cat's Corner". Occasionally, a real-life character will appear, as in "Jolie's Nightmare", a boho rap about how a date of Al Jolson's was so scared when he returned from the bathroom in full blackface that she called out for the hotel detective. But whatever Weiss's subject matter, there's an air of after-hours fun and a generosity of spirit throughout that's completely engaging. After all, anyone optimistic enough to try to rhyme "cleft palate" with "Caesar salad" has to have their heart in the right place.

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