Chocolate And Cheese Turns 20
“A good part of Ween’s philosophy is ‘Fuck you,’ you know? Any good band, that should comprise a bit of the message.”
— Mickey Melchiondo (a.k.a. Dean Ween)
When opening the jewel case of the original Chocolate And Cheese disc, you were greeted by a sketch on the CD face: a meaty cartoon hand, overlaid on a pukey brownish-green background, flipping you the bird. Thousands of bands have flown the “Fuck you” banner, and typically the object is clear: Mom/Dad, a shitty boss, the scene, the industry, the government. Ween’s gesture was considerably harder to parse.
It was 1994, and the band, the partnership of Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, two buddies from New Hope, Pennsylvania, were in the midst of a pivotal period. A couple years earlier, they’d signed to a major label, Elektra, which released Pure Guava, an LP’s worth of homemade four-track recordings marked by pitch-shifted vocals, primitive drum machine beats, a general aura of in-jokey silliness and a surprising knack for both compelling songcraft and multigenre mimicry. Music by and for stoners, sure, yet Ween soon found themselves living the dream — traveling the world, performing irreverent ditties about talking horses and Mexican fast food.
So why “Fuck you”? On Chocolate And Cheese, Ween altered the scale and presentation of their art in big ways. They left their trusty 4-track behind and embraced multitrack digital recording. They brought in outside players to add touches of session-musician virtuosity. They capitalized on their label’s clout to create an adolescent wet dream of an album cover. And they kept right on writing Ween songs. Vapid ones, heartfelt ones, sophisticated ones, slight ones, country ones, soft-rock ones, soul ones, psychedelic ones, long ones, short ones, catchy ones, abrasive ones, tender ones, offensive ones, and so on, all jumbled together. They chose 14 of them, decided on a sequence and voila: Chocolate And Cheese. It was clear that they didn’t care whether you dismissed them as sellouts or a joke band (in real life or in an animated context), or adored what they did. Fuck you, whoever you happened to be.
Still, the music on Chocolate And Cheese is at times extremely inviting. “Freedom of ’76” has to be one of the smoothest songs ever released by a so-called alternative-rock band. Freeman, showing off a delicious falsetto croon, sings over a bed of pillowy drums and snazzy chords, which Melchiondo had recently learned from New Hope–area guitar guru Ed Wilson. The Philly-centric lyrics reference a “ho on South Street, hired for tricks,” how “Mannequin was filmed at Woolworth” (not true, incidentally; it was filmed at Wanamaker’s) and Boyz II Men’s continued knack for “keepin’ up the beat.” The combination of offbeat topics with polished performances and a skillfully layered studio sound hark back to Steely Dan, another band that mastered the art of the deceptively sumptuous bird flip.
Nearly every song is equally transporting: a stylistic microcosm, a gaze at a set of conventions — musical or thematic — through Ween’s prism of self-proclaimed brownness. A sleepy country ditty complete with a wheezy, malformed harmonica solo (“Drifter In The Dark”); an oddly involved prog-pop odyssey about an ailing pet (“Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?”); an absurd yet stirringly atmospheric South of the Border revenge ballad sung by Freeman in a stagy Mexican accent and peppered with gringo-Spanish clichés (“Buenas Tardes Amigo”); Melchiondo’s heartfelt instrumental tribute, disguised as elevator-music schmaltz, to the late Parliament-Funkadelic guitar wizard Eddie Hazel (“A Tear for Eddie”). What on pre–Chocolate And Cheese Ween records were charmingly lo-fi home-video snippets have become, thanks to the improved production values, big-budget widescreen shorts.
More so than the technical upgrade, what shines through on Chocolate And Cheese was how wide an emotional spectrum Ween was working with. The songs can be free-associative and almost sub-musical (“Candi,” pegged by Melchiondo as “the worst song that’s on any Ween record”) or artful and heartbreakingly personal (“Baby Bitch”). The latter isn’t simply the best song on Chocolate And Cheese; it’s one of the most bitterly effective romantic kiss-offs ever recorded. Here, Freeman articulates the album’s core sentiment: “Fuck you, you stinkin’ ass ho,” speaking to a judgmental ex. But he doesn’t spare himself: “Got fat, got angry, started hating myself.” Tripping along in fractured waltz time, the song oozes both subdued elegance and toxic malaise.
And who, then or now, could know how to respond to “The HIV Song,” an ice-cream-truck-theme lark whose sole two lines, repeated ad nauseam, are “AIDS” and “HIV.” According to Ween’s then-manager, Dave Ayers, the song came from a place of genuine fear. “Somebody in an interview asked [Aaron and Mickey], ‘What’s your position on AIDS?,’ ” he recalled, when I interviewed him for my 33 1/3 book on Chocolate And Cheese. “And they kind of looked at each other and there was a long pause and one of them said, [In quiet, serious voice] ‘Scared.’ ” So fuck you to any PC types who failed to pick up on that.
And, for that matter, fuck you to anyone who dared to align themselves with Ween’s quest for the brown. By pure serendipity, Chocolate And Cheese’s best-known track is “Roses Are Free,” a repetitive, maddeningly chipper pop song — actually a Prince ode, in both Ween members’ eyes — in which Freeman delivers a set of surreal instructions (“Cut a slab of melon/ And pretend that you still love me”) in a sped-up helium voice. Ween didn’t release the track as a single, but thanks to the avid fandom of Phish’s Trey Anastasio, the jam-band kingpins began covering “Roses” in 1997, and it remains a staple of their live repertoire. (“[Phish’s] version was terrible,” Melchiondo told me.)
Given the career boost the Phish cover afforded Ween, namely an influx of jam-savvy fans, Melchiondo’s naked scorn for the version is puzzling. But it’s important to remember that in Freeman and Melchiondo’s eyes, they were communing with the larger pop canon: Prince, Parliament, Elvis (on Chocolate And Cheese’s lounge-lizard-ish opener “Take Me Away”), soft-rock giants America (on the AM Gold–style “Joppa Road”). In the context of their contemporaries, they saw themselves as peerless. “Nothing pisses me off more than when we get compared to They Might Be Giants,” Freeman said in 2000 of a duo that, on a purely superficial level, seems more analogous to Ween than just about any other band you could name. “They’re like smart, anal college humor. Our humor is straight-up scumbag.” Ayers offered further insight into Ween’s dismissive attitude toward their contemporaries. “They’re classicists, you know?” he said. “When I first started going to New Hope, their record collection was, like, all classic music. They only listened to the Beach Boys and the Beatles and Frank Sinatra — they had no time for modern rock or alternative music that hadn’t stood the test of time.” Thanks for playing, early-’90s music scene, but fuck you, too.
Has Chocolate And Cheese itself stood the test of time? Yes, in the sense that each song on the record still feels indelible. To name another example, you can’t unhear the shimmying groovefest that is “Voodoo Lady.” It’s both awesomely dumb and irresistibly fun, and that blend perfectly exemplifies the album’s defiant spirit. “The song has, like, every New Orleans cliché in it: the lady with a bone in her hair, the red beans and rice, and oysters and jambalaya and all this fucking bullshit,” said Melchiondo of the lyrics. “But it has a really good beat, and it’s part of the Ween catalog forever… it’s really that shallow.” There was no apology in his voice when he uttered that last line; only pride. Even as they upgraded their presentation — and, on later albums such as The Mollusk and Quebec, intensified their emotional punch to an almost alarming degree — Ween never let go of their core silliness, apparently frozen in amber as of Freeman and Melchiondo’s middle-school meeting. A song about a caricatured NOLA temptress might not seem like your idea of great art. But you know what? “Voodoo Lady” worked and still does. So fuck you.
It’s sad that as of 2014, the Freeman/Melchiondo partnership is no more. The story of Ween’s break-up is a long and sordid one, and you’ve likely read it elsewhere. But the spirit of Chocolate And Cheese is still alive. Bandcamp teems with home-recording types who can achieve the record’s hi-fi sound in their bedrooms, but to get that fuck-you feeling, you have to go directly to the source. You can hear it in the resolutely chill yet excruciatingly honest “Covert Discretion,” from FREEMAN, the 2014 debut by Freeman’s new solo project. (“Fuck you all/ I got a reason to live/ And I’m never gonna die,” sings the former Gene Ween.) And you can hear it in the antisocial punk/metal that Melchiondo continues to churn out with Moistboyz and the shamelessly grandiose classic rock he performs with his Dean Ween Group.
Chocolate And Cheese’s middle finger might as well be etched in stone, a monument to an aesthetic equally devoted to smartness and stupidity, forged by one of the most insular, committed partnerships in pop history. Ween are irreducible — you can’t sum them up in an album, a song, a live show. But if you were desperate for a shorthand, you could do a lot worse than the Chocolate And Cheese CD face. There’s no mistaking the target of the insult: If you’re not Dean or Gene, you’re included. How perversely good it feels to be told off so straightforwardly. So fuck you, dear Ween fan; throw on Chocolate And Cheese and feel the burn all over again.