In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: songs that tell a story.
One of the hallmarks of a great story song is an effective twist: “The Leader Of The Pack” gets himself killed in the middle of a rain-slicked hissy fit, “A Boy Named Sue” finds out his name has its roots in skewed filial affection, the couple from “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” realizes they’re both so awful that they’re actually perfect for each other. But since a twist can only really shock its listeners once, and most songs are designed for repeat listening, that burst of irony can’t be the only thing the track has going for it. The twist can’t just be good from a narrative sense; the delivery has to sell it, too, over and over again.
Ween’s “Buenas Tardes Amigo,” from the band’s 1994 album Chocolate And Cheese, achieves that trick by putting its narrative payload in the mouth of a deranged, unreliable narrator, whose ostensibly noble quest for justice is constantly undercut by the notes of hysteria and madness that vocalist Gene Ween (a.k.a. Aaron Freeman) injects into his voice. The song’s lyrics contain some foreshadowing of the narrator’s dark secret, but it’s Freeman’s wailing delivery of lines like the ones honoring the mother who favored his seemingly perfect brother that tip listeners off that something isn’t right about their “good friend.”
Ween’s catalog is eclectic and diverse enough that it would be hard to describe a “typical” sound for their songs, but whatever it is, “Buenas Tardes Amigo” isn’t it. Riffing on spaghetti Western soundtracks, the song plays out like a pastiche of Ennio Morricone, all strumming acoustic, clapping percussion, and big, twangy guitar solos. As such, the song would be little more than a reminder of the Italian composer’s greatness, if not for the story, a winding tale of an overshadowed brother who murders his sibling and then frames another man (the listener) for the crime.
“Acting” is an underrated skill for vocalists, but Freeman sells the hell out of his lines, alternating between matter-of-fact and venomous as his character’s mood swings. Even the song’s biggest weakness—a reliance on rhyme that leads to some awkward sentence structures—contributes to the effect, making the narrator sound increasingly unhinged as the song progresses. By the time he finally hisses the big reveal, the twist barely matters, when compared to the expert way in which it’s been delivered.