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.