In delineating the musical identity of Ween comparisons to They Might Be Giants are inevitable. Both groups focused heavily on humor in their work, and both groups were unjustly branded as novelty acts when the caliber of their songwriting signified that they'd transcended that designation. They even shared the same record label for awhile.
But there are crucial differences. Ween were far cruder, far more aggressive in their style, far more juvenile and far more reliant on shock value. Zappa was an important influence, but for the most part they lack Frank's intelligence.
When it comes to this album the disparities between Ween and They Might Be Giants become all the more evident. Like the latter's debut this album is exploding with ideas and energy, but unlike in They Might Be Giants' first outing Ween don't always convert these ideas into well crafted, melodic songs. Furthermore, like They Might Be Giants they crank out a multitude of tracks, but they go much further, with 29 songs on the edition I have, resulting in many more misfires. And where They Might Be Giants had the sense to keep each track short so the failed experiments wouldn't last long, many of Ween's gags drag on and on to the point where they become interminable.
That's not to say this album is devoid of merit, however. For the most part it's a highly diverse, creative and enjoyable listen. While their songwriting skills are still in their embryonic stages many of the tracks feature clever melodies, and even some of the tracks that flout their lack of hooks are still entertaining. While their humor is sometimes far too vulgar to be enjoyable this album is still filled with myriad laugh out loud moments, even if they manage to make They Might Be Giants seem subtle and sophisticated.
If the track listing were trimmed down, with some of the non-song stunts excised from the play-list, the album would work far better. It feels too bloated, with far too many repetitive jokes present in favor of real music. And if some of the never ending jokes were shortened instead of repeating themselves ad nauseam then many of my problems with the album would be dispelled.
After all, you have to love an album that opens up with lines like 'you fucked up, you fucking Nazi whore' (somehow that always makes me think of Udo cursing someone out in Accept's Son Of A Bitch). Despite its endless profanity the album possesses a unique charm, and more often than not it works.
Still, the group went overboard, and the album suffers for it; were it better edited it would work far better. Nonetheless it makes for an entertaining listen, and creativity abounds on the album. Their songwriting skills were already evident, leading to a handful of Ween classics. The group would evolve in due time in more senses than one, but this album does point the way to the future, already displaying the band's strong potential.
The Pod conspires to be an ordeal to listen to, with only a modicum of rewards for doing so. The album favors dissonance and aural ugliness, exacerbated by horrendous production; only a few instances, such as the stellar psychedelic rocker Captain Fantasy, prove that their songwriting skills haven't wholly atrophied.
Few songs can be recommended without reservation. Nearly each track invariably has something, be it discordant instrumentation, grating vocals or ear destructive production, that mars the experience.
Often the band merely seem to be indulging whatever bizarre impulse pops into their heads. The point of an extended vignette depicting customers purchasing Mexican takeout and receiving incorrect change continues to elude me; perhaps it goes over my head. As a novelty it might be amusing for fifteen seconds the first time, but afterwards it's an albatross around the neck of the album, one that can be dispelled solely by the press of the forbidden 'skip' button.
That's an over the top portrayal of the album's excesses, however, and one that's never repeated to that degree. More often than not the problem is simply that there aren't enough clever ideas or catchy melodies, and those that there are are buried under atrocious arrangements and production, or repeated endlessly until they lose their efficacy.
What the band hoped to profit from this prolonged romance with sonic dissonance is beyond me, but the group's strength will always be their songwriting and anything that stands in the way of that can't be good in the long run. The melodies are obscured, butchered and perverted, or worse simply not there.
There's no growth from the debut. They have attempted to construct a unique identity, but it's an identity that doesn't suit them. The debut contained more melodies, more creative ideas and more diversity, along with far better production.
Had the group continued in this direction they would never have amounted to anything. This album is largely unlistenable, and the few gems scattered within aren't enough to merit one's attention. Fortunately the focus returned to the band's songwriting, enabling real progression to take place.
No longer a pulsing mass of sonic abrasiveness, Pure Guava can be said to be a vast improvement over its predecessor. The band still hasn't developed the capacity to produce music you'd necessarily want to hear, but they've refined their craft enough to avoid generating sounds you'd flee in terror from.
The album focuses more on melody, which is certainly a good thing, but these melodies tend to be rather basic and primitive, and their songwriting talent still isn't up to the task of sustaining a whole record.
Their sensibility is still submerged in sophomoric crudeness, so the endless attempts at humor tend to fall flat on their face. Worse, many of the jokes are just retreads, recycled from their earlier outings (haven't we heard them curse out random people enough times by now? How many pot jokes are necessary?), and in this regard their stock of ideas does seem to be diminishing.
While the group exhibited potential on their debut, they needed to go somewhere with their style; there needed to be tangible progression. Neither The Pod nor Pure Guava displayed any trace of that advancement.
The group suffered from a dearth of ideas, and a lack of the talent needed to pull off what few ideas they had. The group had no clear direction at this point, and were just coasting on their very limited style, confident that anything they cranked out would appeal to their hardcore fans.
Fortunately this artistic limbo would come to an end when the group finally developed some songwriting talent. But for the time being they were little more than their detractors, irrevocably, branded them as: novelty artists. You buy the album, laugh at a few jokes then toss it away, confident that you've heard all that Ween has to offer. It's unfortunate that the group could never fully dispel that stigma, but with albums like this there's little wonder why.
Ween play the chameleon, hopping from style to style, which helps distract one from the fact that, for the most part, their melodies are still rather rudimentary. This album focuses on their music more than its predecessors had, and in that regard they certainly exhibit signs of progression, but they're impeded by the fact that their emphasis is more on faithfully emulating their influences than on creating impressive melodies.
To exacerbate the situation, they fall victim to the age old fallacy that by providing convincing imitations of various styles they're inherently accomplishing something meaningful, when in reality they're failing to build upon these formulas in any interesting ways and these role-plays are too straight-faced to constitute effective parodies. The result is generic, uninspired music in these genres that's neither intriguing from a musical standpoint nor especially funny.
Their attempts to be shocking or offensive (Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down) and The HIV Song) are as childish as ever, and A Tear For Eddie begs the question why a guitarist who's decidedly not a virtuoso at his art would feel compelled to indulge himself with the masturbatory pleasure of a nearly five minute guitar solo. Similarly, Candi is pure irritation, and has no reason whatsoever to exist, on this album or elsewhere.
Still, all is not lost. The group's pop sensibilities show signs of progression (Roses Are Free, What Deaner Was Talkin' About), and even if the endless parade of homages fail to display any strong melodic worth they're certainly more enjoyable than the more suspect material of old.
The album is entertaining; it's more mature (only by their standards; no album with Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony? can be referred to as mature), more grounded in melodies (albeit rather primitive ones), and save for a few instances like Candi it doesn't feature too many moments that will make you want to switch the power off, and that's certainly a huge stride forward.
Combining the diversity and energy of the debut with a more solid musical foundation, Chocolate And Cheese is easily Ween's strongest outing to this point. They still hadn't reached their full songwriting potential, but they'd begun to curb many of their bad habits that had rendered portions of their previous albums close to unlistenable. They were finally getting more serious; as serious as they could get, that is.
Why, after finally showing signs of progression, Ween felt compelled to release an album that's little more than a joke, is anyone's guess, though the move seems rather typical of the band on closer inspection.
Truth be told, the songwriting isn't any weaker than on CaC, and thanks to the plethora of country music veterans who're featured on the album (the 12 golden country greats alluded to in the title) the instrumentation is far more sophisticated than on their previous, consummately homemade productions.
But the problem is simple. Yes, CaC was primarily composed of skilled imitations of various styles, but it ultimately succeeded due to its abundant diversity. By fixating on a single style and milking it for the duration of the album they end up with a hopelessly monotonous affair.
Had any given one of these tracks been included on CaC it would have been perfectly at home, and perhaps a highlight; there's no fundamental problem with Ween tackling country. But there isn't enough that can be done with the genre to sustain a whole album, and historically Ween's greatest strength has always been their diversity and willingness to constantly shift styles.
Taken individually, there are no weak tracks, and certainly no embarrassments like Candi. Piss Up The Rope seems to indicate, given the 'brothers' Ween history of similar songs, that Deaner and Gener possess an unhealthy all encompassing detestation of the female gender, but on the whole the tracks continue to show advancements in the songwriting department, even if most of the jokes still come up short. The primary joke seems to be the very fact that Ween have produced a country album, and the novelty of that wears off pretty quickly.
Thankfully the album is short, their shortest ever, or it really would have degenerated into utter tedium. The album badly needs any songs, even their old crude joke songs, to break up the monotony of country track after country track.
As an experiment this isn't a total failure, as the terminally flawed premise is partially salvaged by their continually improving songwriting, but this album was designed to fail; with the idea it's based on it never really had a chance. Ween will never be stellar songwriters capable of penning catchy melody after catchy melody, and thus they're reliant on diversity to make their albums enjoyable. This album resoundingly ignores that fact, resulting with a novelty album by a group who've always wanted to be more than a novelty band.
A huge step forward on all fronts. The diversity of old is back, albeit with common themes recurring amongst the genre posturings. The group tackle everything from drunken anthems to sea shanties to folk stylistics to progressive rock sendups, ensuring that the sound never gets monotonous.
More importantly, the group have finally found the proper balance in their adoption of other styles. When Ween allowed their particular psychotic fetishes to dominate their albums the result was dissonance and chaos, but when they subverted these tendencies and produced meticulous, faithful recreations of other genres they sacrificed much of their identity, doing little to make these emulations their own. But on The Mollusk they generally overcome the problem, convincingly aping other genres while making sure to put their own, unique stamp on them. The Ween psychosis has its charm, but only when filtered through real music with real melodies, and if the group needs to engage in imitation in order to achieve that goal then that's certainly acceptable; they seem to have found their niche as copycats.
Most important of all, the group's songwriting is at an all time high, and they've finally developed a knack for consistently producing catchy melodies. The demented Mutilated Lips features one of the band's best and most unique vocal melodies, while The Golden Eel is catchy melodrama at its finest. The title track is pretty, with hilarious lyrics parodying the excesses of prog, and the idiosyncratic cover of I'm Dancing In The Show Tonight makes for a charming and suitable opener.
There are misfires, of course. It's Gonna Be (Alright) succeeds in sounding perfectly normal, but there's little merit in that. One would suspect that if someone's purchased a Ween record they'd have little use for normalcy, plus the song's rather bland anyway. It doesn't work as a parody, it doesn't work as a Ween song and it doesn't really work as a normal song either, far too generic and predictable. If Ween felt compelled to prove that they could sound normal then one would hope they'd do it with a better song.
Cold Blows The Wind is likewise rather expendable, as they succumb to the old vice of faithfully imitating a style without adding anything to it. It takes less skill to produce an authentic sounding emulation than an emulation bearing one's distinctive mark, and Ween accomplish little with songs like this.
Still, this is far and away Ween's best album to this point. It's diverse, melodically strong and highly distinctive. By starting with the solid musical foundations of these impersonations Ween have found an effective backdrop for their madness, a way to contain their insanity and use it to good effect. When Ween go overboard they can become nearly unlistenable, but at last they seem to have learned their lesson.
Ween's most normal, serious album. Their identity is preserved, albeit in a more subtle form, though it lacks the balance between their eccentricity and melodicity achieved on some of tM's stronger tracks. Still, it's a far more consistent and far more melodically sound album than its predecessor; their songwriting has reached its peak, and each track has something to offer musically.
Their sense of humor is still present, but much more restrained. The songs contain jokes, rather than being jokes masquerading as songs. The album has a far more serious sound to it, so the humor, and much of the band's identity, is often eclipsed by this more serious tone, even if the tone, more often than not, is a put-on. On some tracks, like Bananas And Blow, the humor is obviously inescapable, but more often than not if you ignore the lyrics and focus on the music the jokes can pass you by. There's little funny about the music, but it's strong enough that it can work on its own without the humor to complement it.
The album is the antithesis of some of their earlier outings. Where they favored humor and madness at the expense of melody, White Pepper buries their old tendencies and focuses on little else than making a melodically strong album. Albums like The Pod devoted serious effort to establishing a unique sound for the group; that sound has been left far behind, in favor of adopting a new, more socially acceptable voice. It's a pity that the group felt compelled to abandon the development of a unique musical voice, but the fact is that where tP was nearly unlistenable, White Pepper is eminently listenable.
Diversity is again instrumental in making the album work, though even with these constant musical paradigm shifts the overall more serious tone can become wearying after awhile. With no lighter segues it can become a bit monotonous, making one long for the childish hyper offensive whimsy of The HIV Song to dilute the relentlessly serious atmosphere.
But in the end Ween's endeavor at creating a more serious album is a huge success. Had they attempted this at an earlier stage in their career it would have been an egregious failure, but finally their songwriting has grown to a point where they're more than up to the task. Diverse, melodical and highly entertaining, White Pepper proves, once and for all, that Ween are far more than a novelty group. tM is more exciting and is a better fusion of their unique personality and newfound songwriting strength, but White Pepper is definitely the more accomplished of the two albums.
Ween correct some old mistakes and repeat some older ones. Much more of the classic Ween persona is evident throughout some of these songs, with the typical diversity extending to the tone as well as the stylistics. This means that for every serious number like The Argus there'll be a whimsical throwaway like Hey There Fancypants to diffuse the heavier tone, thus correcting on of the chief deficiencies of WP, wherein the album became bogged down with mock seriousness.
This more variable tone is complemented by the superior songwriting that characterized the previous two outings. Classics abound, from the epic multipart The Argus to the light/dark contrast of Happy Colored Marbles with its irresistible sing-along helium-voiced refrain to the Motorhead homage It's Gonna Be A Long Night. The album is exceptionally strong; of the more fleshed out songs the only weak point is the somewhat bland Alcan Road, which has a tendency to drag that's compounded by its maddeningly slow pace.
There are some other flaws, however, and they manifest themselves in the form of a couple of rather pronounced regressions to the Ween of old. The album greatly benefits from the infusion of some of the old Ween spirit into it, but when the old ways become overemphasized they become a serious liability, especially in the context of a more mature work.
So Many People In The Neighborhood is an acceptable nod to the old Ween, as it at least has a tangible melody underlying it. It sticks out from the other tracks, which is fine in a way because it breaks up any potential monotony and feels like something different.
The Fucked Jam, however, is, well, fucked. It's a completely unnecessary fit of dissonance that breaks up the flow of the album and detracts from the overall experience. It's not catchy and it's not funny; it's simply irritating. Why they felt compelled to include it on the album is beyond me.
A few misfires, however, can't change the fact that this is an exceptionally strong album. Strong songwriting married to the Ween sensibility amounts to the best the group is capable of, and makes for a very enjoyable experience. I'd rate this album above the last two, as it's more consistent than tM without sacrificing as much of their identity as on WP. One will only hope that they'll learn that it's not a betrayal of their identity to abstain from juvenile pranks on the listener like The Fucked Jam.
Like many of the more prolific groups, Ween possess a considerable amount of unreleased material in their vaults. Likewise, like many groups, they see the potential for exploiting the devotion of their hardcore fans by releasing said material over a series of outtake compilations.
Generally collections of this nature contain songs vastly inferior to their released counterparts, the type of mediocre material that can only be used as bait for diehard fans and completists.
Fortunately, Shinola Vol. 1 does not fit this description. On the contrary, it defies all expectations and actually turns out to be one of the band's best albums, and one of the most consistently enjoyable listens available from the group.
The album only possesses a modicum of the band's usual juvenile pranks, such as the repetitive joke Tastes Good On Th' Bun. While the track is entertaining for the first minute or so it pales in comparison to the fully developed songs that fill the album.
As the collection culls tracks from each chapter of the band's career, it's naturally quite diverse and eclectic, traits that certainly work in its favor and never allow the album to become monotonous.
The tracks range from hard rock to funk to pop to ballads, representing each style just long enough to register then switching to another mode, always keeping the proceedings fresh.
Most surprising of all is the quality of the tracks themselves. For some inexplicable reason, these discarded songs rank amongst the band's best work, featuring plentiful hooks, tight songwriting and the offbeat sense of humor inherent to a Ween album.
Why these tracks were vaulted is a true mystery, as nearly all of them are of the same caliber as those included on their albums. This makes the album a real treat for fans, providing an experience akin to discovering some long lost, well hidden treasure.
Ultimately the album is a must for all Ween fans, as well as providing a good starting point for casual listeners to familiarize themselves with the band, as it represents each side of the group's sides quite admirably. The album provides a highly entertaining listen, and will likely whet the appetite of any fan for future vault releases.
While EPs are generally dismissed as mere advertisements for a group's next album proper, destined to have their best tracks pillaged for inclusion on their next full-fledged outing (thus rendering them wholly superfluous), The Friends EP attracted an extra degree of attention stemming from its status as the first new Ween product after the prolonged hiatus taken in the wake of the stellar Quebec. Ergo while it undeniably conforms to the description illustrated above, it was still subjected to a measure of scrutiny customarily reserved for more significant projects, regardless of whether or not it merited this additional inspection and analysis.
In all honesty, The Friends EP's time in the spotlight wasn't really warranted; while far from bad, it's still unmistakably a placeholder while fans wait for the imminent release of La Cucaracha. It certainly doesn't depict the band at their best, nor does it reveal a radical paradigm shift adopted in the intervening time between Quebec and the EP.
Nonetheless, the EP is by no means bereft of merit, though it does fall prey to many of the pitfalls that have haunted the band throughout the entirety of their careers. The principle vice that they succumb to is their misbegotten notion that by imitating a style they're somehow subverting or parodying it, when in reality they're simply duplicating the genre without making any kind of meaningful joke or artistic statement at all.
Ween have long been susceptible to that misguided brand of thought, dating back to their array of chameleon-like antics on Chocolate And Cheese, wherein they confused spoofs and emulations as if the two were either identical or, at the very least, interchangeable.
The Friends EP is a natural extension of this irksome phenomenon; the EP offers five tracks, each a genre imitating exercise, and each far too authentic to constitute a real parody.
Fortunately, despite this handicap some of the songs still excel in their own right, hence numbers like the insanely catchy title track, a bouncy disco anthem complete with homoerotic overtones (which would subsequently resurface on the closer Slow Down Boy). While it may not function as either an indictment or endorsement of the late disco fad, the melody is so simple yet infectious that, regardless of the band's stance on the style the track emerges as an irresistible listen, employing the genre to good effect without really saying anything about it. I'm not espousing the ridiculous notion that Ween should pass judgment on the genre, it's just that some irreverent humor would be welcome in the midst of this completely straight-faced, flawless recreation of the style, but even without that satirical element the song is still well worth a listen, even though it's destined to resurface on La Cucaracha (albeit with an alternate mix).
Ween also offer another worthy addition to their extensive oeuvre in the form of the jerky, infectious funk of I Got To Put The Hammer Down. Ween deftly implement the style, one that had hitherto never been part of their repertoire, resulting in a funk masterpiece that simultaneously bears the mark of the band yet can also work on a more standard, conventional level as well. Once again the focus is more on mimicry than indulging the group's considerably eccentric persona but, at the same time, the song is sufficiently impressive that it succeeds even when divorced from the classic Ween psychosis.
The remaining tracks, however, don't fare so well, lacking not only the signature Ween charm but also failing as engaging pursuits in their respective genres. The reggae groove King Billy, sadly enough, is much closer to D'yer Maker than Concrete Jungle on the qualitative reggae spectrum; while entertaining in small doses it's needlessly prolonged to the point where it becomes a tedious ordeal to sit through. There's only a modicum of musical progression throughout the track, and while that's par for the course in the genre King Billy never establishes enough of an adequately enjoyable groove to sustain the track's six minute runtime.
Elsewhere Light Me Up is an eminently forgettable salsa workout, while the romantic ballad Slow Down Boy is egregiously bland and mundane. The former is said to have been far more effective as a straightforward rocker at Ween concerts, but sadly in its current incarnation it does little to corroborate those assertions, thus sabotaging a number that may very well have far more potential than one would surmise from its lackluster present form. Slow Down Boy is simply a standard, run of the mill love song, made no more interesting by the homosexual aspect of the track nor by its 'shocking' allusions to oral-sex.
Thus The Friends EP is a flawed yet somewhat charming listen, boasting two solid tracks and three that are purely expendable. Given that Friends is included on La Cucaracha, that leaves I Got To Put The Hammer Down as its main selling point, and while I'm fond of the track it doesn't exactly elevate the disc to 'must buy' status, especially given the exorbitant price of the EP. The Friends EP is enjoyable at times, but if one isn't a diehard Ween fanatic or obsessive completist then they'd be advised to wait for the next real Ween offering, hoping that it's more consistent than this erratic attempt to whet the appetites of Ween fans to the point where they're salivating in anticipation of La Cucaracha's release.
All signs seemed to indicate that La Cucaracha would be a great album. Having finally discovered an acceptable balance between humor and craftsmanship, Ween had been on an incredible hot streak, starting with the excellent The Mollusk and culminating in Quebec, the band's finest achievement to date. Admittedly The Friends EP was somewhat lackluster, but one normally refrains from subjecting placeholder measures such as that diminutive album to any real degree of scrutiny.
Furthermore, it had been a whole four years since Ween had released a new studio album, leading one to surmise that the band was waiting until they'd produced some truly stellar material before committing it to tape. A four year sabbatical was unprecedented in the history of the customarily prolific group's careers, and doubtless afforded Ween ample time to recharge their creative batteries and find true artistic inspiration (albeit, one would assume, in a rather eccentric and atypical form).
Unfortunately for Ween fans their extended hiatus and uninterrupted parade of quality albums seemingly had no bearing upon their latest venture. La Cucaracha is a severe disappointment, a middling effort bereft of the high caliber of songwriting that had animated all of Ween's most recent outings. Stylistically the album is hardly much of a departure from their norm, resembling myriad past releases from a structural perspective, but this time around the 'brothers' Ween simply failed to imbue their work with the creativity and melodic power that had elevated their recent output to the zenith of their discography.
In theory La Cucaracha was envisioned as a 'party' album, but aside from a few instances, namely the opening instrumental Fiesta (a decent intro but little more) and the closer Your Party (which doesn't really sound like party music but actually sports one of the better melodies on the album), the tracks don't really conform to this concept.
This is fortunate in a sense, as a rigid adherence to a single concept would strip the album of one of its chief merits, namely its staggering diversity. Ween dabble in everything from disco to hard rock to reggae to balladry to country to old fashioned love songs, and this boundless variety dispels any risks of true monotony.
Sadly enough whereas albums like Quebec were diverse but adroitly handled each genre, or where God Ween Satan The Oneness offered a huge array of styles that were each infused with extreme creativity, La Cucaracha does a cursory job at best at mastering the musical modalities it offers, producing competent facsimiles that simply don't excel in the songwriting department as one would wish.
Blue Balloon is a highlight, a moody shuffle with a stoner's atmosphere, but even as one of the best songs on the album it still hardly measures up to Ween's better work. Friends is vastly inferior to the version on the EP of the same name, Object never really goes anywhere of interest with regard to either melody or its rudimentary reflection on objectification and Learnin' To Love sounds like a reject from 12 Golden Country Greats.
Elsewhere My Own Bare Hands is a vulgar anthem that, in typical Ween immature fashion, relies on shock value as its main attraction and The Fruit Man is simply uninspired reggae proving they hadn't learned much since The Friends EP's King Billy. Spirit Walker is bland new age drivel that's intended to be a send-up of bland new age drivel but, as is all too often the case with the band, they can't distinguish the disparities between parody and imitation, resulting in tracks that suffer from the very flaws that they're intended to ridicule.
Shamemaker has little in the way of hooks or humor to recommend it, Sweetheart In The Summer is a derivative, uninteresting love song, Lullaby lives up to its name in its capacity to put the listener to sleep and Woman And Man swiftly degenerates into a generic, never ending jam session filled with basic guitar solos and a lack of drive or purpose.
Thus La Cucaracha is quite disappointing, abruptly and jarringly aborting the band's quality streak with a mediocre, uninspired set. If this is the extent of Ween's creativity at the moment then it's clear that they ended their prolonged vacation prematurely, and hopefully they'll abstain from any more releases until they've truly conjured some exciting new ideas. With a dearth of strong melodies and hooks and a lack of genuinely effective humor La Cucaracha simply has little to offer the listener, as the band regresses to a level that they'd seemingly risen above with the likes of The Mollusk, White Pepper and Quebec. Hopefully their next release will prove La Cucaracha to be an anomaly, restoring Ween to their proper places as one of the better and more creative contemporary rock outfits around.