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Geek obsession: Ween
Why it’s daunting: Among the handful of ’90s alt-rock bands to build a sizeable, consistently great body of work that stretches over the course of several decades, Ween still hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves as one of the better bands of its generation. There are two reasons for this. The first is obvious: In spite of releasing albums adored and respected for their top-notch songwriting and breathtaking command of wildly varying genres, and a live show that’s transcended the gaps among the indie, jam-band, and classic-rock crowds, Ween is still perceived by the uninitiated as a novelty group.
It’s an image that set in during the early ’90s, when Ween—which began in 1984 as a home-recording project for Pennsylvania teenagers Aaron “Gene” Freeman and Mickey “Dean” Melchiondo—first garnered mainstream attention for the screechy, love-it-or-hate-it single “Push Th’ Little Daisies” from 1992’s Pure Guava. Because Ween was one of the few alt-rock bands at the time to display any humor in its music—though Ween has always been more of an absurdist outfit than a “funny” one—it was perceived by some as a comedic band on par with The Dead Milkmen or even “Weird Al” Yankovic. But even a cursory look at the group’s albums makes it plain that Ween’s catalog is too singular, well-conceived, and disturbing to fit comfortably under the “novelty” heading. Any chuckles inspired by a Ween record are likely going to be uncomfortable or defensive, and followed by a strong urge to shut the music off.
That points toward the second reason why getting into Ween can be daunting: The band’s music is a dark, twisted ride that occasionally veers into straight-up sickening territory. Death, depression, and romantic ruin come up frequently in Ween songs, but it’s the unflinching, first-person point-of-view of the group’s skuzziest material that can be really stomach-turning. Particularly on the early, “brownest” albums, Ween’s music has a childlike quality—not the cute, eyes-full-of-wonderment part of childhood, but the ignorant, gleefully destructive side. Unlike They Might Be Giants, another golden-era alt-rock group that toes the “funny” line without going over, Ween isn’t appropriate for little kids. In fact, a song like “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)”—where Gene squeaks “It really hurts, mommy, am I gonna die?” in a pained baby voice—probably isn’t appropriate for parents, either.
Possible gateways: Chocolate And Cheese and The Mollusk
Speaking of “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)”—which surely ranks among the most horrifying songs about children in rock history—it says a lot about Ween that the track comes from the band’s best and most accessible record, 1994’s Chocolate And Cheese. Along with similarly queasy tracks like “Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?” and “The HIV Song,” “Spinal Meningitis” doesn’t so much flirt with bad taste as shove it to the ground and forcibly violate it. And yet… it’s also a really good song, with one of the finest guitar solos in Dean’s big arsenal of fine guitar solos. After spending a little time in the Ween universe, singing along with a dying baby no longer seems like a repulsive proposition.
Not that all of Chocolate And Cheese deals in pitch-black humor. It’s mainly a showcase for Gene and Dean’s encyclopedia knowledge of pop music, which has manifested itself elsewhere in the form of brilliant “theme” records like 1996’s Nashville excursion 12 Golden Country Greats (recorded with session greats Charlie McCoy and Hargus “Pig” Robbins) and 1997’s prog-rock exercise The Mollusk. On Chocolate And Cheese, Ween transforms into a different band on practically every track. Whether writing songs in the style of ’70s Philly soul (“Freedom Of ’76”), ’80s arena rock (“Take Me Away”), mid-’80s Prince (“Roses Are Free”), spaghetti-Western soundtracks (“Buenas Tardos Amigo”), tropicália (“Voodoo Lady), or Beatles-esque pop (“What Deaner Was Talkin’ About”), Gene and Dean are equally proficient and yet always maintain Ween’s own unique aesthetic. In contrast to the majority of alt-rock albums at the time, which hewed to a narrow, decidedly one-dimensional palette of hard-rock guitars and overheated angst, Chocolate And Cheese encompasses a world of music and moods, and it’s Ween’s undisputed masterpiece.
Then again, many Ween fans (as well as Dean, who has called it his favorite Ween album) would argue that The Mollusk is the band’s pinnacle. It’s probably Ween’s most unified work, tied together by a nautical theme and a ’70s space-rock vibe that became more pronounced on subsequent Ween records. (The Rogers Waters-led version of Pink Floyd is a big influence on Ween from the late ’90s onward.) “The Golden Eel” and “Buckingham Green” were the biggest-sounding rock songs of Ween’s career at that point, and overall, The Mollusk has an outsized sense of scale and confidence that would’ve been inconceivable just a few years earlier when Gene and Dean were known primarily as bedroom-pop pranksters.
Next steps: In the parlance of Ween-ness, “brown” refers to the unmistakable qualities that make Ween what it is, and it doesn’t get any browner than the group’s 1990 debut, GodWeenSatan: The Oneness. The record’s cover introduces a vital part of Ween lore: The Boognish, a mascot of sorts that’s stuck—like Ween in the album’s title—somewhere between good and evil. Adolescent obnoxiousness at its finest, GodWeenSatan was released when Gene and Dean were barely out of their teens, and it sounds like it, piling on self-explanatory (and glorious) stupidity like “You Fucked Up,” “Fat Lenny,” and “Common Bitch.” But it also has “Don’t Laugh (I Love You),” the sweetest song in Ween’s oeuvre (not that there’s a ton of competition).
If GodWeenSatan is the height of brown, 2000’s White Pepper is the least brown record Ween has yet made. Ween doesn’t go completely straight on this album—see the fantastic Jimmy Buffett pastiche “Bananas And Blow” and the depraved Steely Dan nod “Pandy Fackler”—but White Pepper generally presents Ween as a relatively normal pop-rock band. And with songs as good as “Flutes Of Chi,” “Even If You Don’t,” and “Stay Forever,” it works surprisingly well.
A big part of Ween’s appeal as the group transitioned into the ’00s was its live performances, which stretched to the three-hour mark and fleshed out the band’s recordings into full-bodied monsters of rock. There are a number of Ween live records that range from very good to excellent, but the best release for neophytes is 2004’s Live In Chicago, a CD/DVD that draws from every Ween record up to that point (save 12 Golden Country Greats) and amply demonstrates how this group at its best can stand with any of the great live bands in rock.
Where not to start: Even hardcore Ween devotees are divided on the band’s difficult second album, 1991’s The Pod. Gene and Dean claimed in the liner notes to have recorded it under the influence of Scotchgard; they later said they were joking, but The Pod certainly sounds like the work of two guys with reduced mental capacities. The Pod is a blurry and punch-drunk record, with smudged sonics and torturously slowed-down vocals conveying altered consciousness and lapsed sanity. It’s not an easy listen, but it is a rewarding one; The Pod is an utterly one-of-a-kind record, evoking the creeping paranoia that comes from spending long days in isolation in a cold, dank place. It’s worth getting to eventually, but starting here amounts to jumping headfirst into the deep end of a pool full of piranhas.