Ween Albums From Worst To Best
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?
9. GodWeenSatan: The Oneness (1990)
GodWeenSatan has all the pros and cons of a debut album. The band's aesthetics still have a long way to go; even the freakiest material here ("Bumblebee," "Common Bitch") sounds tame in comparison to the severly warped experiments that would follow on The Pod. But what's charming about the record is how committed Freeman and Melchiondo sound to each idea, whether it's the heavy metal Hulk-out of "You Fucked Up," the beatnik-jazz jive of "Never Squeal" or the sultry funk of "L.M.L.Y.P." (i.e., "Let Me Lick Your Pussy"). Another key feature of GWS is its sheer volume: a whopping 29 songs (on the expanded 2001 reissue). It's not hard to imagine your average musically inclined high-school outcast coming up with one or two of these tunes, but the obsessive drive on display here reveals a rare inspiration, not to mention devotion; you can tell that by this point Freeman and Melchiondo had already cultivated a serious work ethic. ("It's quantity, not quality," Dean Ween joked, describing the Ween M.O. in 2007.) There's filler here, but also intermittent greatness, from the 20-second Springsteen riff "Old Man Thunder" to unequivocal album highlight "Birthday Boy," the fuzzed-out breakup track that presaged every Gene Ween heartrender to follow.
8. Shinola, Vol. 1 (2005)
The best thing about Ween's sole official odds-and-end compilation is how it ignores all the conventional features of such releases. Shinola, Vol. 1 features no nostalgic liner notes, no scrapbooky photo collage, not even any info on recording dates; what you get is simply an album's worth of previously unreleased Ween songs, most very good and a couple great. The record has no real agenda, but it does transmit a tacit "Not so fast" to Ween-o-philes — myself included — who have tried to frame the band's evolution as a steady march away from the stonerfied 4-track-iness of The Pod and Pure Guava. There are plenty of hi-fi, live-band-style tracks on Shinola (the hypnotic, poker-faced vamp "I Fell In Love Today"; the twinkly soul-pop ballad "Someday"), but there's just as much drum-machine-backed horseplay (e.g., the brilliantly vapid tandem of "Tastes Good On Th' Bun" and "Big Fat Fuck"). The record also features some of Ween's most inspired genre homages: "Boys Club," a Doobie Brothers–style yacht-rock ode to a gay retreat topped off by Freeman's priceless Michael McDonald–isms, and the mindblowingly great "Gabrielle," which captures Thin Lizzy's street-rock jive as well as any acolyte ever has. Given Shinola's well-earned fan-fave status — and especially now that Ween isn't making new music — one might expect further volumes to come down the pike, but Dean Ween says don't hold your breath. In a recent post on his Ask Deaner blog, Melchiondo wrote, "I'm not ruling out the possibility of someday releasing another installment of Shinola, but I'm sorry to say it won't be anytime soon."
7. La Cucaracha (2007)
Barring an eventual reunion, La Cucaracha could very well be the final Ween album. And that makes sense, not because the record sounds like any kind of definitive summation of the Freeman/Melchiondo aesthetic, but because in retrospect, you can hear the pair running out of steam here. La Cucaracha isn't a bad record; it's just not a very deep or surprising one. After the existential terror of Quebec, the straightforward stylehopping Ween pursues on its 10th LP — you've got your reggae ("Fruit Man"), your country ("Learnin' To Love"), your classic soul ("Sweetheart In The Summer"), etc. — sounds slightly neutered. Still, there are very strong songs here, especially the Melchiondo-sung caveman-rock stomp "My Own Bare Hands" ("She's gonna be my cock professor / Studyin' my dick / She's gonna get her master's degree in fuckin' me"); Freeman's eerily composed serial-killer portrait "Object"; the caffeinated, super-catchy techno number "Friends"; and the smooth-rock triumph "Your Party," featuring silky sax breaks from pop-jazz heavyweight David Sanborn. La Cucaracha may not have represented a great forward stride for the band, but there are enough keepers here to make it worthwhile.
6. Pure Guava (1992)
Even with 20 years' worth of hindsight, it's still shocking that Pure Guava came out on a major label. Its predecessor, The Pod, made perfect sense in context. Shimmy Disc, the NYC indie imprint behind that second official Ween LP, specialized in various forms of music-as-outsider-art; within a couple years of The Pod, it issued records by King Missile, GWAR, Daniel Johnston, Naked City, Ruins, Bongwater (a twisted pop outfit featuring label head Kramer), Ruins, and a bunch of other staunch underground types. But Pure Guava came out on Elektra, which had recently scored hits with everything from Natalie Cole's Unforgettable… With Love to Tracy Chapman's self-titled debut and Metallica's Black Album. This third Ween LP basically follows the Pod template: drum machine, speed-warped vocals, rampant stoner-ish mindfuckery. (The band recorded both albums at home — in a shack situated on a Bucks County, Pennsylvania farm, the dwelling that gave The Pod its name — before the Elektra deal, and they licensed it as-is to the label; when I interviewed Ween's then-manager, Dave Ayers, for the 33 1/3 book, he told me, "I think we got $200,000 for licensing Pure Guava, and that record cost them about $42 to make.") In other words, it makes Nevermind sound like Rumours in comparison.
Pure Guava isn't as sheerly depraved as The Pod, but it still contains plenty of insular horseplay: "The Goin' Gets Tough From The Getgo," where the pair impersonates a pair of effeminate MCs; "Hey Fat Boy (Asshole)," which finds Freeman threatening the title character in a nonspecific ethnic accent; "Touch My Tooter," a bluesy, bouncy slab of lewdness; and the self-explantatory apex of the band's self-dubbed "brown" aesthetic, "Poop Ship Destroyer." At the same time, the record found the duo's songwriting stealthily improving: The first two installments of the "Stallion" saga on The Pod played more like skits, but part three here is a melodically sophisticated outsider-pop mini opus. The same goes for the screechy yet irresistible MTV hit "Push Th' Little Daisies," Freeman's chilled-out soul ballad "Sarah" and the album's arguable highlight: "Don't Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy)," a riff on Queen-ish pomp rock that would become a live-show favorite. Pure Guava's bedroom-fi production values give it a deceptive "Anyone could do that" quality, but the LP's high-level craftsmanship proves that Elektra's $200K acquisition was actually a total steal.
5. The Pod (1991)
The Pod is the Ween-est Ween album, the most uncompromising mission statement in the band's discography. The record finds the band at its drugged-out nadir/zenith, employing agonizingly slow electronic beats, warped vocals and deliberately alienating in-jokery in the service of pure Boognish-worship. Freeman and Melchiondo never sounded browner than on tracks like "Frank" ("Frank, give me some pork roll, egg and cheese, if you please / With some gravy fries"), the first "Stallion" installment ("You goddamn piece of shit / On my dick you should sit") and the infamous "Pollo Asado," essentially a Mexican-food order recited over waiting-room-caliber Muzak. The album cover (a huffer's homage to the Best Of Leonard Cohen album sleeve) and a reference in the credits to "Scotchguard powered bongs," later reveled as pure b.s. by Melchiondo — only fueled the image of the pair as dead-end burnouts, but there's one problem with that reading: Many of these songs are too good to dismiss as mere goofs. In addition to crunchy, over-the-top fist-pumper "Dr. Rock," there's the bedroom-thrash rave-up "Sketches Of Winkle" (which nails the Tenacious D aesthetic years before the fact), the hauntingly minimal psych-soul ballad "Demon Sweat," the jangly, Dylany kiss-off "Sorry Charlie" and the immortal "Pork Roll, Egg and Cheese" — a flawless exercise in post-Beatles bittersweetness that belongs in the all-time Ween top 5.
4. Chocolate And Cheese (1994)
Chocolate And Cheese was the album where it first seemed apt to refer to Ween as a band. Before C&C, Ween were two stoners and their trusty 4-track; after C&C, they were eclectic rock gods amassing a neo-Deadhead following. Hearing the record in the context of the Freeman/Melchiondo discography, it's easy to miss the unabashed low-tech-ness of Pure Guava and The Pod. But once you hear a gloriously hi-fi track like "Freedom Of '76," featuring Melchiondo's buttery six-string, an airy beat from future full-time Ween drummer Claude Coleman Jr., and Freeman's luscious falsetto, you realize that deep down, you've been waiting for this moment all along. The contrast between C&C's jazzed-up production values and the duo's still way-offbeat sensibility makes for a heady tension. Presented with canned electronic beats, a song like the loping jazz-pop ditty "Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?" would've registered another Pure Guava–style oddity; but with live drums and a lush, full-band sound, it feels like a gateway to a trippy-freaky Willy Wonka–style wonderland.
Songwise, genre tourism abounds here, and Freeman and Melchiondo pretty much nail every style they try, from shagadelic lounge-crooner-ism ("Take Me Away") to poignant psychedelia ("A Tear For Eddie," Melchiondo's instrumental tribute to Funkadelic guitar wizard Eddie Hazel, who had died in '92) and heavy-lidded vintage country ("Drifter In The Dark"). In that sense, C&C threw down a "How far could we take this?" gauntlet for the rest of the band's career. (As evidenced by 12GCG and late Ween triumphs like "Your Party," the answer was "Very, very far.") But in retrospect, C&C's real revelation is the emergence of Aaron Freeman's real-deal serious side. He'd written heart-on-sleeve songs before ("Birthday Boy," "Sarah," etc.), but C&C's quietly harrowing "Baby Bitch" — not to mention the cryptic, disconcerting "What Deaner Was Talkin' About" — attained a new level of confessional brilliance. Ween had been cracking up fans for a few years by the time of Chocolate And Cheese; this was the record where Freeman and Melchiondo proved that they could break hearts too.
3. The Mollusk (1997)
It's a stretch to label any of the Ween LPs a concept album, but The Mollusk comes closest. Recorded in a Holgate, NJ beach house — "I’m sure it’s not standing at this point," Melchiondo wrote in a post-Sandy Ask Deaner update — the record features a persistent sea theme, which inspired instant classics such as the groovy, super-charming "Ocean Man" (which made it to the Spongebob SquarePants Movie soundtrack) and the exquisite title track, a trippy folk-pop waltz marked by effervescent synths and a mystical Freeman monologue. There's even an entrancing sea-life collage on the cover, courtesy of legendary designer Storm Thorgerson, who lent his visual savvy to a little record called The Dark Side Of The Moon. Not all of the songs fit the template (the bawdy Irish-style singalong "The Blarney Stone," the desolate mourner's ballad "Cold Blows The Wind"), but there's a dark, murky quality to the record as a whole that makes everything here seem of a piece, from the prog-psych tour de force "Buckingham Green" (this one belongs on the short list of Freeman's greatest vocal turns) to the mournful break-up tune "It's Gonna Be (Alright)." Other Ween full-lengths like Chocolate And Cheese and La Cucaracha zip compulsively across the stylistic and emotional spectrums; The Mollusk strives for consistency, and as a result, it's one of Ween's most satisfying front-to-back listens.
2. White Pepper (2000)
White Pepper is the Ween album I play for people who lost track of the band after the Beavis And Butt-head days, the one that best sums up their "mature" phase, and how fully they embraced band-hood after so many years spent as a stripped-down duo. It's probably Freeman and Melchiondo's best-sounding record — interestingly, it's one of only two Ween full-lengths not abetted by producer and de facto third member Andrew Weiss — and it's easily the most accessible. Many of the tracks here are shoulda-been hits: strummy psych-pop bliss-out "Flutes of Chi"; "Even If You Don't," a paradoxically glitzy-sounding account of a strained relationship; the masterful soft-rock turn "Stay Forever," possibly the single prettiest Ween song. Sleeper gems such as the dreamy instrumental interlude "Ice Castles," the acid-rock groovefest "The Grobe" and the slyly scuzzy jazz-pop tune "Pandy Fackler" dot the rest of the LP. But the high point comes at the end: "She's Your Baby," a glassy-eyed nightmare of a ballad that concludes the record on a note of unshakable malaise. Can your joke band do this?
1. Quebec (2003)
Next to Shinola, Quebec might be the most obscure Ween LP. It was the band's first record in more than a decade not to come out on Elektra — when Ween's lawyer contacted their label to ask for an advance on the follow-up to White Pepper, the brass responded by dropping them — and Sanctuary, the U.K. imprint that backed Quebec, was just a few years away from being bought out when Freeman and Melchiondo came on board. Improbably, though, Quebec is also Ween's magnum opus. It may not have the crowd-pleasing charm of Chocolate And Cheese, the scruffy audacity of Pure Guava, or the effortless appeal of White Pepper, but in terms of sheer emotional heft, it leaves all those records in the dust. Slowly but surely, Quebec envelops you in a depressive cloud, as though the stoner's bummed-ness of The Pod had morphed into a very adult kind of desperation.
Dean isn't kidding when he foretells a take-no-prisoners drug bender in opening hard-rocker "It's Gonna Be a Long Night." Written and recorded during Freeman's divorce and while Melchiondo was battling substance abuse, the album tackles depression in a series of increasingly dire tracks. In the first half of the record, Freeman cloaks his feelings in classic Ween cartoonishness on tracks like "Zoloft" and "Happy Colored Marbles," but later on, he ditches the speed-warping and silly voices and just sings from the heart. The results are the most wrenching and beautiful songs he ever wrote, including "Chocolate Town," "I Don't Want It," and the almost unlistenably painful closer "If You Could Save Yourself (You'd Save Us All)," which finds Freeman chronicling a romantic split with Leonard Cohen–esque cynicism — wise yet also weary, curdled, perverse. The record also features a series of psychedelic masterpieces (the driving "Transdermal Celebration," the pensive "The Argus") that make The Mollusk's trippiness sound childish by comparison. If you've never quite fathomed the cult of Ween, Quebec is the record that just might turn you around; you simply can't hear it all the way through and still think of the band as a caricature. This is the Ween album where shit gets real.