I found out about Ween’s demise last week, and I have been trying to think of how to sum up what they meant to me – and the world, but of course! – in some kind of measured way. I have a rather bizarre relationship with them: I came to them rather late (2001? 2002?) and I never, ever saw them live. So I can’t really do them justice. But I will try.
I think the best way to do it is to discuss what I think is their greatest achievement – and one of the great rock albums of the 1990s – Chocolate and Cheese.
A lot of people seem to want to write about Ween’s demise as if they meant something more. There have been attempts to put Ween into some kind of greater context. A Village Voice article I read tries to make them heirs to punk. I don’t desire to do that. To me they were just a band. But a great band.
Ween have always been considered a novelty and / or comedy act by anyone who has never really listened to them for more than a song or two. And that’s not fair. They are extraordinarily talented – allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine has called Dean the greatest alternative rock guitarist – and extraordinarily clever (sometimes too clever). Nowhere is this better illustrated than on Chocolate and Cheese.
Before Chocolate and Cheese, Ween were perhaps too weird for most people to get into. They had made numerous self-released tapes in the late ’80s and released a slew of extraordinary albums in the early ’90s, but there was a problem. The problem was the Ween were one of the pioneers of the lo-fi aesthetic (attributed to a supposed scotch guard habit) back when it wasn’t as cool as it is today. Sure, there were other bands who were doing the same thing, but Ween took it so far that it was unlistenable at times. (See, for example, “Mourning Glory” on Pure Guava, a track I am proud to say I once played over FM radio… and somehow still had a job the next day).
That aesthetic is absolutely gone for the first time on Chocolate and Cheese. There’s pretty much no trace of it. I understand that many people consider good production to be a sign of selling out. But there’s a difference between good production and clean production and the problem with pre-Chocolate and Cheese Ween is that they were badly produced. It was difficult to appreciate their awesomeness because the sound was (deliberately) terrible and because they had no internal editor. Somehow both got way better. (It helped that they used an actual studio for once.)
Like all previous Ween albums, Chocolate and Cheese contains ruthless-parodies / heartfelt-tributes (yes, at the same time) to numerous popular music genres and it is fun just to try to guess the influences / targets. (It’s not always easy, as they apparently owned a very large record collection.) I feel like this grown-up, more mature-sounding version of Ween is the logical extension of “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Yer Blues” from the White Album; parodies so good they have internalized the music they are parodying and you can’t tell whether they are parodies or tributes, or both.
On Chocolate and Cheese, Ween attack / celebrate tired roots rock (“Take Me Away”), Philly soul (“Freedom of ’76”), Eddie Hazel (“A Tear for Eddie”…this one is not a parody), Prince (“Roses are Free”), traditional country (“Drifter in the Dark”), funk blues (“Voodoo Lady”), soft-rock (“Joppa Road”), spaghetti western soundtracks (“Buenos Tardes Amigo”) and much more. And they include, along with all of that, a very strong contender for the creepiest song ever (“Spinal Meningitis”). Not only are these songs often really funny but the far more impressive thing is how good they are at each genre. Each performance sounds believable, as if this was a different band. If it weren’t for the lyrics, one might think this is a completely arbitrary compilation of songs from some guy’s 16 favourite genres.
It’s tempting to slag them for not creating a coherent whole, but everything works so well individually that I can’t really hold to that argument. Dean is consistently outstanding and Gene has perhaps the best vocal moment of his illustrious career on “Freedom of ’76.” The musicianship is of extremely high quality, despite the fact that it was pretty much still the two of them at this point. (Plus a drum machine.) The lyrics are, as I have mentioned, razor-sharp, and the sound is finally accessible enough. There is really nothing else like it from the ’90s. (I.e. comedy rock that transcends its origins as comedy.) Even Ween were never able to top it. Their country album (12 Golden Country Greats) and their prog album (The Mollusk) are more consistent in terms of style but less effective – though The Mollusk is still pretty awesome and there are days when I like it more – and their later efforts aren’t as funny as Chocolate and Cheese. (Though White Pepper has its share of great moments, particularly “Bananas and Blow,” which just ends Jimmy Buffet.)
Honestly, even before I knew Ween were breaking up, I would put this record at the top of my list for best comedy rock of the decade, and among the top mainstream rock albums of the decade. So if you are wondering about Ween, now that they’re gone, I suggest Chocolate and Cheese above anything else.