Saturday, June 27, 2009
Ween's Chocolate and Cheese was one of the first records I ever reviewed on this blog (way back in 2006, to be exact - one of many old blog posts you should probably never read). Since that album was the first Ween album I ever heard, and since I reviewed it almost immediately after I first heard it, I obviously had none of the perspective on Ween that I now have. Considering that they've become one of my most beloved bands in the past few years, I figure a follow-up review is long overdue. Especially considering that Chocolate and Cheese, despite its greatness, is currently only my third or fourth favorite Ween album! If that.
Now, that's taking nothing away from the quality of Chocolate and Cheese. It's still wonderful. It's just that Ween have recorded many, many excellent records, and it's not easy to pick a favorite. For the time being, I would like to discuss two later-day Ween records that I have come to prefer over C&C - 2000's White Pepper and 2003's Quebec. Both are strong candidates for Sean Rose's Favorite Ween Album.
Of course, they're just candidates, you see. I can't decide which would qualify as my "favorite" without getting a headache, so I'm not even going to bother. White Pepper comes pretty close as anything, though. After the brilliant nautical psychedelia of The Mollusk, Ween decided to take a crack at Beatles-esque pop, which resulted in their most accessible, joyous record to date. I mean, that's not saying much with Ween - it's still varied, unusual, and full of primo Ween musical parodies (Steely Dan jazz-pop on "Pandy Fackler," a Motorhead throwaway with "Stroker Ace," and a Jimmy Buffet thing called "Bananas And Blow"). But hot damn, how about what might be my favorite Ween song ever, "Even If You Don't"? That's pure McCartney piano-pop, sir, delivered with a perfect hook, a wonderfully enthused Gene vocal (masking classic twisted Ween lyrics: "Please don't touch the phone book / my friends are getting pissed off") and a lovely noodly Dean solo - all delivered with only a scant trace of irony. Could've been a hit, it could, in some other world. And how about "Stay Forever," a lovely power pop ballad worthy of Badfinger? Or album closer "She's Your Baby," maybe the sweetest little song Ween could possibly write? None of this is a joke. None of it sounds like a joke, that is. Shit, were Ween ever really joking, anyway?
Besides those songs, Ween expand their psychedelic influences with "Exactly Where I'm At," "Flutes of Chi," "Back To Basom," the hard-rockin' "The Grobe" and the oddly Residents-like "Ice Castles." And of course, there's "Falling Out," another irony-free screed against a former lover in the same vein as "Baby Bitch." White Pepper is the least crazy, least "brown" album in Ween's rich oeuvre - so what really shines through is Ween's songwriting chops, which have always been top-notch. It's pop music! GREAT pop music. Isn't all the best pop music a little fucked up under the surface, anyway? A tradition Ween understands all too well.
Quebec was Ween's purported return to their "brown" roots, claiming similarities to early-90s favorites GodWeenSatan and The Pod. But that's only half true - a third true, really. Quebec is so much more than that. Abandoning most of White Pepper's pop sheen, Quebec's songs are more thoughtful - dare I say, meditative - than any other Ween record to date. Songs like the acoustic "Among His Tribe," the muted psych-pop "Tried And True," the dirgey "Captain" and the folk echoes of "The Argus" are surprisingly pretty, almost lulling. They remind me of The Mollusk's "Cold Blows The Wind" or even C&C's "Buenos Tardes Amigo," only totally straight-faced. Of course, Quebec's atmospherics could easily be overshadowed by some of the more demented songs here, the aforementioned "brown" throwbacks that prove Ween, despite their newfound hi-fi production and polished songwriting skills, can be just as twisted as they used to be if they so choose. These songs are the demented synth-chant of "So Many People In The Neighborhood," the hilariously unsettling ode to "Zoloft" (wait for the "I can't explain what I'm feeling inside" line - one of my favorite Ween lines, just from its delivery alone), the absolutely delirious "Happy Colored Marbles" and the repetitively electronic "Fucked Jam." "Brown" songs they certainly are - like any classic Ween track, they will make you feel dirty just by listening to them.
But those are only four songs - three, if you don't count the instrumental "Fucked Jam." Discounting those songs, and the aforementioned meditative psych-folk tracks, this might as well just be White Pepper Part 2. The record kicks off with the misleading "It's Gonna Be A Long Night," easily eclipsing "Stroker Ace" as Ween's best Motorhead parody (sample lyrics: "Don't call your doctor, call the police / You bring the razor blade, I'll bring the speed"). Then there's the gorgeous psychedelic pop of "Transdermal Celebration," one of Ween's best songs EVER; "Hey There Fancy-Pants," easily the jokiest song on the record which wouldn't be out of place on C&C; "Chocolate Town," a sweet country-rock tune that may or may not be about pooing; and "I Don't Want It," which I swear is a dead ringer for the second side of Big Star's #1 Record - "Give Me Another Chance" or "Try Again" come to mind. God, I have no idea if that's what Ween was going for with that one. I could be completely wrong, I could.
Few Ween albums are structured like Quebec. While the first half jumps between varied Ween musical parodies and psych-pop-folk musings, the second half dips deep into the murk, turning Quebec into maybe the darkest Ween album ever. The record ends with "If You Could Save Yourself (You'd Save Us All)," another fine example of Ween reinterpreting the pomp of Wall-era Pink Floyd and making it something entirely their own. I am hard-pressed to call the song uplifting, although it is almost anthem-like in its sweep, something that can't be said for many Ween songs. In the end, Quebec - like White Pepper - features Ween delivering more great, refreshingly unironic psychedelic rock, although taking it into much darker (some would say, more interesting) territory. Even the "jokey" songs here (except "Fancy Pants," of course) have a layer of delirious conviction to them, starting off as novelties but breaking down into outright surrealistic fits by the end of their running time.
So White Pepper is almost-perfect pop; Quebec is thoughtful and ethereal. Both represent modern Ween at their absolute best - jokey and fun, but also surrealistically brilliant and unsettling. This trend continues - to a lesser extent - in 2007's La Cucaracha, a record that I guess deserves another listen from me considering that I haven't heard it since it came out. But White Pepper and Quebec, especially in the wake of The Mollusk, continue Ween's winning streak and creativity well into the 20th century. I'll admit that I listen to Pepper more than Quebec - or any other Ween album, for that matter - but Quebec sounds better and better to me with each listen. Which might be why I have more to say about it.
That's all. Listen to Ween. Feel the sheen of the best Ween.
(From now on I am ending every review with a fun rhyming couplet, I hope you enjoy my hilarious wordplay)