10. 12 Golden Country Greats (1996)
Lots of listeners get hung up on the conceit of 12 Golden Country Greats, for better or for worse. If you're not up to speed, the album is one of those "Young artist meets old-school session musicians" projects, which have become common in the indie sphere since Ween made the trip to Tennessee (e.g., Bonnie "Prince" Billy's Sings Greatest Palace Music). Plenty have slagged on 12GCG and plenty have praised it, but what both sides often miss is that this is an unusually spotty set of Ween songs. Rather than indulging their pan-stylistic whims, as they would on pretty much every other LP, Gene and Dean hew tightly to one approach here, sapping their creativity in the process. Placid, repetitive songs like "I'm Holding You" and "Powder Blue" make the album feel longer than its half-hour running time, and the brasher, sillier tracks ("Piss Up A Rope," "Mister Richard Smoker") sound forced in context. There are a few buried gems here, most notably "Help Me Scrape The Mucus Off My Brain," a comically dire alcoholic's plea ("I think I spent the dog-food money") sung by Melchiondo, who undersells the conceit brilliantly, and the existential folk tune "You Were the Fool." And the dissonance between the offbeat lyrics and seamless vintage-style arrangements yields a certain curiosity factor. But overall, 12GCG plays more like a "Because we could" one-off than a genuinely worthy Ween album, especially with LPs as strong as Chocolate And Cheese and The Mollusk sitting on either side of it.
In March of 2011, when I published a book about Ween as part of the 33 1/3 series, it seemed as though the band would go on forever. At that point, core members Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo — Gene and Dean Ween, respectively — hadn’t put out a new record since 2007′s La Cucaracha, and Freeman had freaked out fans with a blotto anti-performance at a Vancouver show two months earlier, but as any Ween devotee could attest, such speed bumps were a familiar feature of the New Hope, PA duo’s two-decade-plus cruise. The reasonable assumption was that Freeman would take some time to cool off, as he had after a canceled 2004 tour, and Ween would eventually reemerge with another string of triumphant three-hour gigs and brilliantly offbeat LPs.
Except it didn’t happen that way. Ween did eventually return to the road, playing select festivals and one-offs through the end of 2011, but this past January brought news of Marvelous Clouds, a Freeman solo record featuring material by the poet-songwriter Rod McKuen. Once the publicity cycle for that album kicked in, things started getting weird. In May, Freeman called The Onion from rehab, stating that he was “ready to put [Ween] on the back burner.” Later that month, he made a definitive proclamation to Rolling Stone: “I’m retiring Gene Ween.” Disbelief and increasingly sordid online infighting ensued, and as the situation currently stands, it appears that the Freeman/Melchiondo partnership is no more.
It’s a grim moment to be a Ween fan, but it’s as good a time as any to assess the band’s legacy: Pure Guava, Ween’s major-label debut and the album that spawned their biggest hit, the Beavis and Butt-head–mocked “Push th’ Little Daisies,” turns 20 tomorrow, November 15. The loss of Ween as a live entity is tragic, to be sure, but the band’s discography is rock solid. From their humble inception — two middle-school buddies spreading the gospel of an invented deity called the Boognish — to their late-career status as one of pop’s most beloved cult bands, they never stopped honing their craft. There are no redundant Ween records; Freeman and Melchiondo told us something new with every album, from the sprawling 4-track mindfuck that is The Pod to the relatively tidy genre experiment 12 Golden Country Greats and the depressive psychedelic masterpiece Quebec. (The nine proper albums and one outtakes collection counted down here aren’t even the half of it; completists will happily fill you in on the truckload of self-released cassettes, live albums, B-sides and assorted other rarities — including the 1999 fan-appreciation comp, Craters Of The Sac, viewed by some as a bona fide LP — that round out the Ween oeuvre.) Even as they matured, Ween never stopped sending mixed signals, juxtaposing silliness and sincerity: Balancing out every stoner’s lark in their catalog is a perfect pop song.
It sounds corny, but you can think of this round-up as a tribute to musical buddyhood. “A friend’s a friend who knows what being a friend is,” Freeman sang on La Cucaracha’s “Friends,” and in its own way, the track — and the band’s entire body of work — is an expression of a collaborative ideal: two all-but-blood brothers uniting in the name of homegrown art. Sure, Lennon and McCartney’s relationship soured along the way, but there’s something comforting about that iconic joint songwriting credit, as if they never stopped longing for that kind of creative unity even after it unraveled. The same goes for Freeman and Melchiondo. Even as they trade barbs, they’re each taking pains to acknowledge the depth of their bond. “What Aaron and I created together was something so special that everyone that was even close to it for even one evening was affected forever,” Melchiondo wrote in the Ween forum this past September. “Nothing can ever change that.” Can I get an amen?
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