It’s tempting to write Ween off as a novelty band – their biggest hit single, ‘Push th’ Little Daisies’, is gimmicky and stoned. But lurking beneath all the silliness is an ace duo who are students of popular music, with the imagination and songwriting skills to affectionately pay homage to or parody everything from Jimmy Buffett to Prince. Gene Ween is a vocal chameleon, which helps them cover huge stylistic ground, from easy listening croons and Philly soul to cock rock stomps and progressive rock.
Ween were formed by Aaron Freeman (Gene Ween) and Mickey Melchiondo (Dean Ween), who met in 8th grade in New Hope Pennsylvania. They began making records on four track cassette recorder with a drum machine. I haven’t covered their first three albums – I always found The Pod and Pure Guava tough to sit through, although their debut certainly has some very strong material. Lots of hardcore Ween fans prefer this early period, characterising it as “brown”.
Starting with 1994’s Chocolate and Cheese, Ween started playing with a full band, and making more polished records, and that’s where I get on the bus. The group split in 2012, with Gene leaving, but reunited in 2015 for live performances, and are currently considering a sequel to outtakes collection Shinola.
Ween Album Reviews
Favourite Album: The Mollusk
Overlooked Gem: White Pepper
GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, The Pod, Pure Guava
I used to own all of these on CD, but I’m not so excited about the duo’s early sludgy, stoned, “brown” albums, although GodWeenSatan is easily my favourite of the three, with standouts like ‘You Fucked Up’ and ‘Up On The Hill’.
Chocolate and Cheese
Chocolate and Cheese is the first Ween album with professional recording standards – their previous albums are basically home-recorded, but this sounds like the work of a full band in a proper studio, even though Gene and Dean Ween still play most of the instruments. It’s still laced with immature humour, with songs like ‘Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony’, more of a bratty humour than the sophisticated genre parodies that fill their later albums.
Chocolate and Cheese is full of good songs, but few great ones – the kiss-off of ‘Baby Bitch’ and the Caribbean groove of ‘Voodoo Lady’ come closest. Yet it’s more than the sum of its parts, careening through a myriad of styles; Chocolate and Cheese is dazzlingly eclectic, throwing in everything from Philly Soul (‘Freedom of ’76’), a Mexican/western shaggy dog story (‘Buenas Tardes Amigo’), indulgent guitar soloing (‘A Tear For Eddie’), twee pop (‘Roses Are Free’), and closing advice (‘Don’t Shit Where You Eat’).
While Ween didn’t quite peak here, Chocolate and Cheese is still a terrifically entertaining record, and if you’re a fan you’re going to need to hear this sooner or later.
12 Golden Country Greats
According to Wikipedia “the Jordanaires have been one of country music’s premier backup vocal groups, working with artists such as Patsy Cline, Johnny Horton, Ferlin Husky, Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers, Ween, Red Foley, Jim Reeves, and George Jones.” If Dean and Gene Ween look slightly out of place among the above list of country musicians, they do have a country legacy, of precisely one album, 1996’s 12 Golden Country Greats. The album actually consists of only ten songs, a reference to the dozen country session musicians who contributed to the album. Either way, 12 Golden Country Greats stands up as a surprisingly satisfying foray into country for Ween – there’s obviously an implicit humour in hearing dirty Ween lyrics juxtaposed with straight faced country (“You can wash my balls/With a warm, wet rag”), but some of these songs play the country genre surprisingly straight and surprisingly sincerely, and perhaps it’s the mixture of parody and affection that makes 12 Golden Country Greats an entertaining, likable foray into country music.
On the parody side of the album, ‘Piss Up A Rope’ marries over the top misogynistic lyrics to a perky country beat, and probably comes out as the most memorable song on the record, while ‘Mister Richard Smoker’ couples over the top homophobic lyrics with a swinging country beat. It’s not surprising that Ween are able to perform satirical songs like these successfully, as it’s their modus operandi, and it’s the serious stuff like the opening ballad ‘I’m Holding You’ and the melodic ‘You Were The Fool’ that’s even more revealing.
It’s a surprisingly sincere and enjoyable album, and it’s only the relatively short length (32 minutes) which makes it feel like an EP and means that it isn’t quite in the top tier of Ween albums with The Mollusk and White Pepper.
The Mollusk isn’t as blatantly a guise album as the country record that preceded it, but in its own way it has a very distinct identity, as the flavours of nautical themes and progressive rock permeate through most of these tracks. It’s another step forward in professionalism from Chocolate and Cheese, with strong production and rich vibrant mixes that show off Ween’s musical abilities. At its best it’s dazzlingly creative, adventurous and musically intelligent. Surely no other band is capable of jumping from Irish pub sing-along to progressive rock epic, from show tune to parting sea shanty, and have such strong song-writing underpinning each effort.
Strangely, this album’s let down by its less ambitious material; most of the more extreme genre efforts are flat out brilliant, and it’s the safer compositions that aren’t as interesting. ‘I’m Dancing In The Show Tonight’ sets the tone with an irresistibly simplistic show-tune. The saltier tracks include the brilliant pub anthem ‘The Blarney Stone’, with a convincing Irish octogenarian vocal, the breezy ‘Ocean Man’, and the closing shanty ‘She Wanted To Leave’, which packs in a lot of emotion behind a fake Irish accent. The progressive rock parodies include the ridiculous lyrics and flute riff of the title track, ‘Mutilated Lips’ and the guitar histrionics of ‘Buckingham Green’. There’s also an ace cover of a Chinese folk song, ‘Cold Blows The Wind’, and another venture into Ween’s seventies AOR goldmine with ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright’.
The explosion of musical colour on The Mollusk makes it a great left-field candidate for the best rock album of its decade.
After several guise albums – 1996’s 12 Golden Country Greats and 1997’s progressive rock The Mollusk – Ween returned to eclecticism for White Pepper. The less explicit theme here is The Beatles; the title itself could be taken as a reference to Beatles’ album titles, while ‘Even If You Don’t’ in particular has a bouncy Paul McCartney flavour. The Beatles are hardly the only reference point – Dean and Gene Ween demonstrate their knowledge of popular music with a wide range of styles, including disrespectful tributes to 1970s icons Jimmy Buffett (the preposterously decadent ‘Bananas and Blow’) and Steely Dan (‘Pandy Fackler’, which fuses Becker and Fagen’s jazz stylings and undercurrent of dark humour).
Aside from those two songs, White Pepper has a more serious facade; some of the songs could even be described as heartfelt, like the touching ‘Stay Forever’. Ween are credited as a five piece on White Pepper, and the musicianship is often superb; there are some great guitar solos while the rhythm section is fluid and creative. White Pepper is full of well written material, whether Ween are taking on punk (‘Stroker Ace’), country (‘Falling Out’) or pastoral psychedelia (‘Flutes of Chi’).
Much more than a series of genre exercises though, White Pepper is a cohesive and well executed album. With White Pepper, Ween are content to continue to create great music in the same manner as the bands who inspired them to make music in the first place.
Ween describe Quebec as a “brown” album, which means that it’s often reminiscent of the druggy lo-fi early Ween. The “brown” songs are easily outnumbered by the mature pop songs; in some ways Quebec is the quintessential Ween album since both sides of the band are strongly represented.
Highlights include the hilariously decadent Motorhead inspired opener ‘It’s Gonna Be A Long Night’, the bouncy ‘Hey There Fancypants’, the seventies AOR of ‘I Don’t Want It’, the silly instrumental ‘The F**ked Jam’, and most of all the prog rock masterpiece ‘The Argus’, which would have fitted perfectly into the nautical The Mollusk and which climaxes with some beautifully melodic guitar lines. A couple of the “brown” pieces also work well; the dreamy ‘Zoloft’ and the trippy ‘Happy Coloured Marbles’ are both keepers. ‘If You Could Save Yourself (You’d Save Us All)’ is a surprisingly accurate recreation of a bile-filled Roger Waters piano ballad circa The Wall.
Ween’s previous two records clocked in at around forty minutes; at fifty five Quebec could stand some trimming, but there’s still enough top drawer Ween here to satisfy any fan.
Shinola, Vol. 1
Shinola Vol. 1 is a collection of leftovers from various Ween projects – most of these songs are genuinely unheard before, although some material had previously been featured on the internet only Craters of the Sac. Because Ween are already very eclectic, and this compilation spans early sounding 4-track material and later more polished work and only exacerbates the diversity, it’s very difficult to make generalisations about it.
Some of Shinola top tier – the Thin Lizzy pastiche ‘Gabrielle’, the Prince inspired ‘Monique The Freak’, and ‘Someday’ are all very strong. ‘Did You See Me’ is pretty and Pink Floyd inspired, while ‘I Fell In Love Today’ is smooth and retro. I’m less enamored by the early low fi repetitive material like ‘Tastes Good On The Bun’ and there’s also flat out weird material like ‘Israel’, which mixes smooth saxophone with Jewish lyrics.
Due to its uneven nature, Shinola easily ranks as one of Ween’s weaker efforts, but it’s well worth hearing highlights like ‘Gabrielle’ and ‘Monique The Freak’.
Ween released a great sequence of studio albums leading up to La Cucaracha – the trio of The Mollusk, White Pepper, and Quebec are my three favourite albums from the band. But La Cucaracha is a burned out sounding effort – it has few songs that match the band’s previous efforts, and Gene Ween has since stated; “overall that was a big clue Mickey and I were finito.”
La Cucaracha is less rock oriented than anything than the band had released previously – the crass Dean Ween fronted ‘My Own Bare Hands’, and its rough hewn sound is a throwback to early Ween, but it’s out of place on an album dominated by smooth and subdued pieces. The smooth sound does work on the lounge parody of ‘Your Party’, but there just aren’t enough memorable tunes here.
Ween have played live shows since, but La Cucaracha is their last studio record to date – among the duo’s more interesting subsequent activities, Dean has worked as a fishing charter captain, and Gene has performed Billy Joel tribute shows.
Ten Favourite Ween Songs
I Don’t Want It
Piss Up A Rope
Even If You Don’t
The Blarney Stone
Freedom of ’76
Bananas and Blow
Monique The Freak
Flutes of Chi