The most common answer to the question, "what kind of music do you like?" has undoubtedly got to be "everything except country and rap", which proves how stupid the question is in the first place. I mean, it's ridiculous to assume that people can only like one or two styles of music; every genre has its appeal no matter who you are. So let's ask this - why aren't there more bands like Ween? They play it all; gritty rock n' roll, sleazy adult contemporary, pure pop, hard rock, Latin, soul, prog, and of course a healthy smattering of "undefined". They even wrote and recorded an entire country album (perhaps to upset the "everything but country and rap guys") (no word on the Ween rap album yet). The great thing about this is that it doesn't even feel like a gimmick; Ween are not like those technical metal groups that try to wow their audiences by switching genres three times on every song. Rather, you get the impression that these guys really do listen to a lot of good music and just write whatever happens to be bouncing around in their heads.
It really helps that both members of the band (Dean Ween and Gene Ween, real names: easy to find but who cares) have a ton of talent; Gene has a ridiculous range as a singer and a naturally great voice, while Dean is a versatile and gifted guitar player. In addition they're great songwriters and pretty freaky dudes overall (they never really made their drug habits a secret). But as you may expect from a band that named themselves "Ween", they do have a sense of humor about everything, which is why most of their work sounds half like a tribute and half like a vulgar parody; this is a band for which song titles like "Touch My Tooter" and "Waving My Dick in the Wind" are common. They're the Beatles and the Frogs rolled up into one, with a reverence for offbeat songwriting comparable only to early They Might Be Giants.
As for their discography - the nature of their music makes it tough to like every song on an album, so you've got to know what you're getting before you buy. Their early period, which is their first three albums, are a tough bunch to love - lo-fi, drug-fueled, unfocused, obnoxious, experimental, and too long, but their moments of brilliance are hard to deny, and they were absolutely unique. As such, it's no surprise that many consider these albums to be better than anything that came after, but new fans should start with their later, more polished material. Also, it's important to know that Ween have a reputation for being a must-see live band, as the studio albums don't really tell the "whole story" (similar to the Grateful Dead or King Crimson). They've definitely earned that reputation - these guys are nearly flawless on stage, not only sprucing up their songs but loosening things up, which leads to a number of unexpected things. Pretty much every Ween live recording is a good time, sometimes making it tough to go back to the actual studio recordings.
On to the reviews....
God Ween Satan (1990)
The first Ween album came out when the boys were just barely out of their teens, but having released a number of homemade tapes over their high school years, filling up the entire disc was no problem at all. Well, maybe a little. I doubt very many of these songs, besides the ones that lead into each other, were meant to be played together, making God Ween Satan seem fairly choppy and deranged, but what can you expect? After all, the album's nearly 80 minutes long, consisting of 29 songs (although that includes the 3 bonus songs mixed in the tracklist of the new re-release), and I doubt there's anyone who likes them all. Probably the best advice is to take it all with an open mind, lest you ignore some of the brilliant, drug-fueled experimentation ("Mushroom Festival in Hell"). Okay, so maybe the experimentation is what grinds the album to a halt near the end ("Blackjack"), but besides that, this is all pretty listenable - lots of it is loud and obnoxious, as they do a lot of hard rock ("You Fucked Up", "Common Bitch", "Bumblebee"), but there's some interesting genre hopping along the way. Bebop, swing, doo-wop, gospel, and even a Prince parody ("L.M.L.Y.P.") make their way before a stoned anthem closes out the album (make sure you turn up your volume for that one, or you'll probably miss it altogether). Most of the really good songs come toward the end - the heartfelt "Birthday Boy", begins with a spoken "Jesus Christ, pain!", setting the tone for a bitter and over-distorted guitar ballad that shows Gene's vulnerable side, and the catchy psychedelic rock of "Marble Tulip Juicy Tree" and fast-paced country of "Hippy Smell" are among the album's best cuts. There certainly aren't many albums with this much creativity floating around, but it's far from perfect - too much noise and obnoxious vocals (in order to help sound like all the bands they emulate, Ween uses quite a bit of vocal processing), and neither of the 9+ minute songs really needed to be that long - in fact, a good 20 minutes could probably be lopped off the album. Of course, which minutes those are would be huge debate among the fans (and probably the band themselves), so I guess you could just program out the tracks you don't like. Certainly a very good album, but you do need some patience to get through it all.
The Pod (1991)
The band's most unique and unclassifiable album, The Pod came about when the boys were both stuck at home with a wicked case of mono. The result is a lo-fi, completely "self-produced" drug-induced mess, but given a couple of listens there's something very special at work here. Overly fuzzed guitar, dying drum machines, mutilated vocals, and a really twisted sense of song structure are only some of the odd joys you'll find over the album's 76 minute running time. Like the last one, it's almost certainly too long, with too many compositions seemingly made up on the spot ("Boing", "She Fucks Me"), but there's something to this. Many of the songs hold their own - the bombastic "Dr. Rock", the glam-infused "Captain Fantasy", the hilarious "Stallion pt. 1", and the proto-Mollusk "Right To The Ways And Rules Of" are hard to take completely seriously, but they're damn fine songs in their own right. There too many tracks to name, but I really like "Frank", which sounds like something from Hardcore Devo, and some of the real melancholy material such as "Alone" and "Mononucleosis" reflect what the boys were going through. And the truly messed up songs like "Molly" get stranger every time you hear them. Hell, there's even a Phil Collins tribute/parody called "Demon Sweat", and what's not to like about that? But man, 76 minutes? A good third or so of the tracks go nowhere, and halfway through the sloooow tempo of pretty much every track is likely to get to you (save "Sketches of Winkle", a genuine rock song!) Don't start with this one, but many Ween fans really swear by it, so what do I know? All things considered, this is one of the best 'bad' albums I own.
Pure Guava (1992)
You wouldn't know it by listening to it, but Ween actually got signed to a major label for this album. You have to give Elektra credit for being adventurous, possibly hoping that Ween would use their budget to make a more commercial turn, but this is what we got - a shorter and less serious version of The Pod, lo-fi recordings and all. It's hard to believe an album with such nothing-fests as "She Fucks Me" would have outtakes, so maybe they did this on purpose? It's actually more fun as a whole, but an album with songs like "Poopship Destroyer" and "Touch My Tooter" can only take you so far. Okay, there's quite a few moments of Pod-style goodness in the beginning - the guitar tone on "Little Birdy" rules, and the majestic "Stallion Pt 3" is both hilarious and catchy...do you suppose the South Park guys were inspired by this for that Lemmiwinks episode? No? Well what about "Push th' Little Daisies" - doesn't that sound pretty much exactly like Cartman singing in the end? Or "The Goin' Gets Tough From The Getgo", where the Weens talk just like the South Park Canadians? (by the way, Parker & Stone's band DVDA used to open for Ween, so there's absolutely a connection there) And like the 'Park, Ween aren't quite on 100% of the time, resulting in a number of half-songs or noise experiments like "Reggaejunkiejew" or "Morning Glory". Some of this stuff like "I Play It Off Legit" and "Hey Fat Boy (Asshole)" aren't even songs at all. Hell, besides "Springtheme" and "Don't Get 2 Close 2 My Fantasy" (maybe the best song here), the second half feels simply unfinished. Not quite the big seller Elektra was hoping for, though it did win them a sweet cameo appearance in It's Pat. There are some neat ideas here (three stars worth!), but this is even flimsier than The Pod.
As an aside, I do find it really funny that "Push th' Little Daisies" wound up becoming Ween's biggest hit, as it was released as a single (well, they had to release something!) and gained notoriety as "that awful song on Beavis & Butthead".
At The Cat's Cradle (rec. 1992, rel. 2008)
I like when bands master old performances and release them commercially, especially when we're in an era where a band can release a good-quality live recording to the public within minutes of the show being performed. This puts an emphasis on live albums recorded from about 2006 onward, so it's cool to see a band actually go back in time and release a show from their early years. This album fills a pretty major gap in the Ween discography. This is the only era of Ween that doesn't really have a live album to go with it, and without hearing this you won't really have a good idea of what the brothers were like in their early years. Basically it's two guys with guitars, stoned out of their minds (they constantly make references to being high on opium), playing against a DAT machine that basically acts as virtual rhythm section. Sounds terrible, but it's actually pretty damn good - Ween themselves called this their "brownest album ever". The DAT machine does limit what they can do, but you can tell the Weens were open to a bit of interpretation with the tunes and the setlist. One of the best parts of this all is the stage banter - they definitely have a sense of humor about themselves, beginning the show with "we must have been really good last time we were here...there's about half the audience", telling each other that they're in "rare form", introducing "You Fucked Up" by saying, "this is a song about...that fuckin' bitch", and describing the early, stripped down form of "Buckingham Green" as being their "ultimate low point" - they even solo for a few minutes and ask the crowd, "wanna hear it again?" They accidently record over part of one of their songs, and during "Don't Get 2 Close 2 My Fantasy", Gene starts off by singing the wrong verse. Even when they take requests at the end, they ignore them all and instead play "ReggaeJunkieJew". Lord, these are the high points of the album. You can't ignore how much these guys seem to like being on stage and making each other laugh, and despite what they say this show was actually quite good; Dean is especially on fire. I don't really just want to list the best songs, but let me just say the renditions of "Nan" and "Marble Tulip Juicy Tree" sound amazing, and it's not really surprising that most of these songs sound better without the vocal effects applied to them. This is an essential document of the early band, and in my opinon gives you a better sense of what they were trying to do back then than any of their studio albums did.
Chocolate and Cheese (1994)
A big turning point for Ween; they've recruited a full band and put out an album that actually sounds kind of normal. Well, "normal" is a relative term - certainly, most of these tracks won't raise an eyebrow on your typical FM station if you weren't really paying attention, but the album itself is a strange listen since it basically changes genres every track. So you'll get an obnoxious Tom Jones parody ("Take Me Away"), some Philly soul ("Freedom of 76"), Beatles-based pop ("What Deaner Was Talkin' About"), old-time country ("Drifter in the Dark"), disco reggae ("Voodoo Lady"), a Funkadelic-like guitar jam ("A Tear For Eddie"), helium pop ("Roses Are Free"), and so on. Over the course of 16 tracks, this constant switching makes it tough to get too involved, as only a few of the tracks are real winners ("Voodoo Lady", "What Deaner Was Talkin' About", "A Tear For Eddie", "Freedom of '76"), but it's an interesting listen chock full of solid songwriting. It's all too easy to accuse Ween of lightening up and betraying their roots, but how do you explain the sick and twisted "Spinal Meningitis" or "Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony"? Okay, so "Candi" does sound like something off Pure Guava, great. It can stay there. But for every one of those, there’s something that truly is funny – "Take Me Away" is so intentionally straight and generic I can’t help smiling all the way through. I feel like this rating is a little low, but I can't help but notice that the group is still feeling themselves out, and most of the tracks are a lot more subdued than they should be; it never really raises above midtempo, and once you hear these songs performed live, you won't want to go back. On the other hand, how many bands could ever pull this off and make it not only listenable, but musically solid? Good album to start with? For sure. But Ween would go on to do better than this!
12 Golden Country Greats (1996)
Yes, Ween really did record a straight country album (on the cusp of a commercial breakthrough, no less!), and it's only kind of a joke. It's short (10 tracks, not 12; the title refers to the number of musicians), but it's authentic; this was recorded in Nashville with a group of skilled session musicians. Predictably, the critics and fans alike slammed this to no end, only to later turn around and kinda like it. Certainly, they've shown us their melodic brilliance in the past, but it's still a pleasant surprise to know that they can pull off fantastic and sentimental tunes like "You Were The Fool" (which is simply one of my favorite songs these guys ever wrote) or "Powder Blue", which ends with most of the musicians taking a solo, allowing you to hear all the pedigrees at work here (including a spoken word part by Muhammad Ali, for reasons that aren't quite clear). The standout track is probably "Piss Up a Rope", which is a downright hilarious parody of the genre. There's only one other real 'comedy' track, "Mister Richard Smoker", which is done as a 20's style dance tune, although the lyrics kind of ruin it (it's just a long gay joke) - surely, tracks like "Fluffy" or "Japanese Cowboy" aren't completely straight-faced, but they're well written and performed compositions that are a heck of a lot more thoughtful than some of the garbage passed off as country music these days (by the way, although you might not recognize it at first, "Japanese Cowboy" is a pretty clever "Chariots of Fire" rip). That said, if you're scared off from this album because you're sick of country on the radio, rest assured this draws more on guys like Willie Nelson and Hank Williams than modern hybrid-country like Garth Brooks or Toby Keith. It's almost as if Ween made this album to convince their fans that country music isn't really so bad. Give it a shot.
Live in Toronto (rec. 1996, rel. 2001)
A Chocodog live release documenting a show on the band's country tour, featuring a number of accomplished country musicians called the "Shit Creek Boys". Sadly, they don't do the best tracks off the country album, and in general they seem to shy away from their previous best (sans "Dr. Rock", I guess), so if you're not in love with all of Ween's past, you'll probably find yourself bored at some point. Good thing this band is so skilled, adding fiddles and piano to nearly every track, but they just don't fit into some of the older material, which they actually do admit out loud ("Spinal Meningitis", "The HIV Song"). However, the high points are fantastic - they turn in a beautiful version of "What Deaner Was Talkin' About", and there's a country-western stompin' rendition of "Pumpin' for the Man" which makes the original look limp and rushed in comparison (which, quite frankly, it is). Oh, and "Push th' Little Daisies" is still obnoxious, but the band accompanies it well, and Gene gets to display his endless lung capacity and hilarious delivery. They run out of songs to play and drunkenly take requests, resulting in a huge "Fluffy" jam session and a go at "Piano Man", where Gene replaces the chorus with "put some coke on my dick tonight", which grinds it to a pretty abrupt halt. So it's highly entertaining, and it's really great to see the things Ween could do with a talented backing band, but they just don't play to their strengths enough.
The Mollusk (1997)
This is the one that non-Ween fans know about. Like all other Ween albums, it yielded about zero hits, but it garnered a reputation regardless, and even Dean and Gene agree that this is their finest hour. The Mollusk is a collection of nautical-themed tunes, drawing inspiration mostly from old prog-rock and psychedelia. Not like "Schizoid Man", but rather the prettier, more mystical stuff like "Voices in the Sky". This is not necessarily a downer of an album, but it does feel as though most of these songs were written from the point of view of drunken old sailors who have seen better days. Songs about lost loves, magical objects, acid trips, and longing for a time that will no longer come. And then, "Waving My Dick in the Wind". This is an album that has a grizzly, accordion-led sea shanty ("The Blarney Stone") and a cover of "The Unquiet Grave", a haunting tale which was written in the 14th century (when the average lifespan was about 35), and both are key to the album. The oceanic feeling isn't just in the lyrics - there is a tiny bit of Caribbean flavor (mostly concentrated on "Ocean Man", which is only two minutes long but may actually be the catchiest song ever written), but a lot of this was produced to have a fluid, swaying feel to it, as though it's mimicking the motions of a boat ("Polka-Dot Tail", "Mutilated Lips"). Elsewhere, there are elements that give this a rustic, psychedelic feel - pan flutes, submarine percussion, the random woofing of a dog, vocals that mutate throughout the course of the song. Not only is the production on this incredible and inventive, the performances by the boys themselves are top-notch. The vocal on "It's Gonna be Alright" is one of the sweetest Gene's ever done, while "She Wanted to Leave" is an emotional powerhouse, the ballad to end all ballads. And, of course, the guitar - Dean's solo on "Buckingham Green" soars, delivering a quick payoff to a song that manages to go through all the movements of a sidelong prog epic in about three minutes. None of this is to say the humor's gone absent - just that much of the humor is whimsical and surreal. Even "Waving My Dick in the Wind" avoids blue-humor; rather it's just a goofy country-stomper that could have appeared on their last album if it were slowed down. My only real criticism of the album is that "Waving" is rather similar to "I'll Be Your Johnny on the Spot", though they're so brief and fun that I appreciate them both, especially as they take pressure off the heavier, more heady stuff that surround them. Otherwise this sounds like Gryphon making a rock album, which is an awesome thing indeed. This is where Ween became great.
Paintin' the Town Brown (1999)
This was Ween's first 'official' live album. Ween originally conceived of this as a gift to the fans to be released over the internet, but Elektra apparently didn't like that and released it commercially. It definitely makes more sense as the former; all the recordings are from various bootlegs from various years with various sound quality, and there's nothing from The Mollusk. It caters more to the fans of the browner material; there's a lot of druggy and messed up stuff here that the band only seems to be half-serious about ("Mountain Dew"). The most interesting thing here the drawn out raga groove that "I Can't Put My Finger On It" turns into; otherwise there's some decent material but few standout performances. I mean, "Doctor Rock" is intense, but the sound quality distorts a lot of it, and as good as the lengthy solo on "Voodoo Lady" is, they've done better (and lengthier) ones on live albums since. Otherwise, probably the most notable thing about the album is the sheer length of some of the tracks - doing the one-joke "Awesome Sound" for eight minutes is one thing, but the second disc's hippie jam of "Vallejo" and extreme noise fest "Poop Ship Destroyer" (which bears no real resemblance to the original) is another, clocking in around a half hour each (basically, skip the second disc altogether). The only real selling point of this was that it gave you an opportunity to hear the early 90's band live, but now that At The Cat's Cradle has been released, there's little to recommend about this, other than the fact that any live Ween is basically good. It does feature a lot of songs that don't really appear live elsewhere ("She Fucks Me", "Tender Situation", "Mushroom Festival in Hell", "Puffy Cloud", among other non-songs). The flip side is that they generally stay away from their better material. This is definitely an odd one. Pick up the other live albums first.
White Pepper (2000)
Whereas The Mollusk showed that Ween were maturing, by the time White Pepper rolled around, it was apparent that the brothers weren't worried about alienating their audience in the process. Gene and Dean were now hitting 30 (which was kind of a shock - at the time I remember a lot of people thinking they were much older) and making a bid for longevity in the 21st century - this is a carefully arranged and thickly produced pop album that turned the comparisons away from the Butthole Surfers and towards the Beatles. Oh, it's still Ween alright - there's plenty of genre-hopping, a few carefully placed profanities, and a sense of good-natured irony throughout - maybe "Pandy Fackler" is a parody of Steely Dan, but the instrumentation and arrangement suggest that it was a parody that they really cared about; at the very least, it shows that Ween were so good at lampooning many different styles because they were talented enough to imitate them. If this album has a theme, it's pop-psychedelia, as the group was able to put together a number of densely produced and professionally written tunes with painstaking detail (the Eastern mysticism of "Flutes of the Chi" and the heartbreaking steel guitar in "Back to Basom", not to mention all the fantastic guitar heroics throughout the whole album). In light of this new fixation, it's no wonder that many of the fans called the band out on the lack of "brown" material, but the songwriting makes up for it - who wouldn't enjoy a love song as sweet and hook-filled as the country-twanged "Stay Forever"? Then again, Ween fans are a weird bunch. Some of it's good enough to make you wonder if the only reason why this didn't get much radio play was because, you know, it's Ween. The trouble with the album is that the stuff like "Back to Basom" and "The Grobe" is so good that you wonder why they're wasting time on Motorhead parodies ("Stroker Ace") or inconsequential instrumentals ("Ice Castles"), as the album is fairly light at only 12 tracks. Perhaps the adult contemporary masterpiece is still inside them.
Live at Stubbs (rec. 2000, rel. 2003)
While previous live releases have hinted at Ween's reputation as a great live band, this 3 hour long live set really makes good on that promise. Spanning 31 tracks, this is a big Texas-style rock concert with a band that's as comfortable with their faster and harder early stuff as they are with their newer, more polished material, with nearly as much from GodWeenSatan as there is from their latest, White Pepper. There isn't much room for subtlety here - they do some slower, trippier numbers like "Little Birdy" and "A Tear for Eddie", but most of this is balls-out rock, to the point where they can drop "Hot For Teacher" in their setlist without batting an eyelid. This means there's a lot of their riff-heavy tunes ("Marble Tulip Juicy Tree", "Captain Fantasy", "Sketches of Winkle"), and some big dumb rock songs like "Fat Lenny" and "Big Jilm". Hell, they even make room for "Put the Coke on My Dick" which is one of those songs that only really works live (same goes for the singalong "Booze Me Up and Get Me High"). The drummer, Claude Coleman, sings that one (along with "Hot for Teacher") and he's indispensible here, as he's practically flawless no matter what style the Weeners are attempting. As the brothers are pretty excellent themselves, the jam sections work well, which is good news, as there's a 10-minute "Voodoo Lady" and a 8-minute "Tear for Eddie" on here. The big tomato on here is the third disc, which is nothing but a slow, raunchy, grooved out "L.M.L.Y.P." that goes for over 36 minutes (!). I mean, a lot of bands do big, jammed out tunes as a final encore, but you have to give Ween credit for taking things this far. The way it launches into a jazzy Weather Channel-style jam halfway through is neat, then Coleman takes a solo that lasts forever. By this time, the audience is spent, but damn, they do get their money's worth. And so will you - it's a must-have for fans of the band, but more than that it's just a great live rock album. The audio document is definitely a treasure, but it's one of those great live albums that makes you really, really wish you were there. It's impressive to hear anyone play this well together.
A natural follow-up to White Pepper, though the band seems to be in a much more fucked up mental state. This time, most of the tunes have an air of desperate sincerity to them, rather than the classic rock posturing of stuff like "Even if You Don't". It helps that this is some of their best material yet - not only is the songwriting great, but they've gotten adept at layering and creating atmosphere, which allows droning tracks like "Captain", "Among His Tribe", and "Alcan Road" to co-exist well with bombshells like "Tried and True" and "Transdermal Celebration" (which makes good on every promise Oasis ever made). Like the last few albums, the real highlight is the rich production and economic arrangements that emphasize all the right things, allowing songs like "Chocolate Town" to become stunning instead of merely good. In fact, they've gotten so good at "serious" songwriting that the browner stuff now seems out of place ("So Many People in the Neighborhood", "The Fucked Jam", and "Hey There Fancypants", an unnecessary rewrite of "Mister Richard Smoker"), none of which is even close to being as good as the trippy "Ooh Vah La", which is essential but somehow got deleted from the U.S. release (some have it as a bonus track though). This makes it hard to consider the album better than The Mollusk, even though both albums are actually fairly similar (in particular, "The Argus" sounds like it would have fit on that album perfectly as an epic closer), especially in that both have a ton of replay value. The difference is that this one sounds more grounded and has an air of chemically-induced haziness, as though it's a soundtrack to getting messed up on Nyquil. The exceptions are the opener and the closer, one of which is an awesome Motorhead ringer ("It's Gonna be a Long Night"), and the other a dramatic show-stopper that may be Gene's best vocal performance to date ("If You Could Save Yourself, You'd Save Us All"). Put all together, this might be the best representation of what late-period Ween was all about and all the things they could have become.
In 2011, Gene released caesar (the original title of this album) for free on the internet, a 29-track demo with a bunch of songs that were previously unheard.
All Request Live (2003)
A live-in-the-studio album where the tracklist was voted on by the fans. It seems like the only fans who bothered to log on and vote were those who loved the 'brown' era of the band, as most of the selections aren't even really songs at all. It's charming to hear the guys tackle things like "Pollo Asado" and "Reggaejunkiejew" in a live setting, but I really wish there was more material that showcased the band's later songwriting genius rather than just "Stay Forever" and "Tried and True". Most hardcore fans would probably love this, as there's four unreleased tracks, including the hilarious rejected Pizza Hut jingle "Where'd the Cheese Go?" The last time I listened to this I hit black ice and crashed my car, but you may have better results.
Live in Chicago (2004)
Another from the Chocodog concert series, this one not only showcases modern Ween as an excellent live band, but provides a great live album for new-ish fans who want a taste of what the band's about without having to sit through a 3-disc set or a 30-minute abstract noisefest like "Poop Ship Destroyer". It's based off a DVD which I don't have that apparently contains more tracks than the CD, but the disc does fine without them. Focusing mostly on their more recent song-oriented material (there's only one song from their pre-C&C era, "Pork Roll Egg and Cheese"), it's amazing just how great of a live band these guys have become (or always been?). There's a certain quality here that reminds me of something like King Crimson live circa the 1980's - it's much fuller than the studio albums, and there's a good amount of jamming, although not enough to turn anyone off. A great album for those who, like me, thought that Chocolate and Cheese wasn't exciting enough, since all six tunes from here that were taken from that album are spruced up and rocked out (particularly "Voodoo Lady", which adds a blistering guitar solo), making C&C seem boring in comparison (after hearing the first thirty seconds of "Take Me Away", I knew I'd never hear the studio version the same way again). The other tracks don't get such a dramatic transformation (save for "Zoloft", which becomes surprisingly addictive and serene, and "I'll Be Your Johnny on the Spot", which rocks twice as hard), but they're hardly any worse - even "Ocean Man" still sounds great without all the production effects. You really can't have enough live Ween.
Shinola, Vol. 1 (2005)
A collection of rare tunes spanning all of Ween's career (frustratingly, there isn't a list of when these songs were actually recorded, though you can probably figure much of it out), and strangely enough, one of their most solid albums from front to back. It's been said that the worst judge of an artist's work is often the artist themselves, which certainly rings true here - every single one of these tracks could have been used to improve one of their albums. Three of the tunes in particular ("Gabrielle", "Someday", "The Rift") are just too well done to be confined to a rarities collection, but when you consider how solid the rest of the album is, suddenly that doesn't seem so bad. Okay, so maybe "Someday" and "Israel" are just too unlike Ween to have made an album (not that it's stopped them in the past), but the rockabilly Thin Lizzy tribute "Gabrielle" is really the kind of thing they do best, and "Monique the Freak" is as spot-on of a Prince homage as anything I've heard. Sure, some of the early tracks are kind of grating ("Big Fat Fuck"), but as a whole, only The Mollusk and quebec are as consistent as this. This may be the only time I recommend an outtakes collection as a potential first purchase - it contains flashes of many of the band's sides (including their 'brown' period), lots of immediately memorable tracks, and is a great litmus test. Sadly, it looks like a second volume may never come.
The Friends EP (2007)
This was made to show off some of the tracks that were written for the next album but didn't make it. The title track here really is something new for these guys - Vengaboys-style Europop! It's so over the top that it's hard not to smile, and the vocal hook is good enough to warrant lots of repeat listens. If the synth-crazy overly upbeat arrangement seems to be parody of Crazy Frog, then get this - the track was produced by Reinhard Raith, the man who was Crazy Frog. Anyone who begrudgingly admitted that they actually liked Cher's "Believe" would have a blast with this. From what I've heard, it was Gene's idea to produce the track in this way; Dean apparently hates it. The other four tracks take on a variety of styles - funk, reggae, Latin, and slow ballad, and they're decent if not a little gimmicky. But it's a fun EP with no real missteps; a good primer for the upcoming album.
La Cucaracha (2007)
While I did like The Friends EP, I was hoping for a bit more from the full-length. From The Mollusk on, every release was basically a knockout (even the outtakes collection), as their music became more layered and thoughtful the older these guys got. With La Cucaracha, they've essentially undone all the work they did on quebec and have turned into the joke band most non-fans assume they are. It's still a solid listen, but it doesn't really expand on the EP at all, and in some cases is worse - "Friends" appears here in a stripped down form and is only half as much fun as the EP version, and "The Fruit Man" is a long reggae tune that's a knockoff of "King Billy". Every song here does have something going for it, but ultimately the album adds up to less than the sum of its parts - while their last few albums had buckled down stunners like "Tried and True" or "The Argus", there is no such material here, mainly because they really don't even try. There isn't much here that you won't glean on your first impression; this may actually be their most diverse album ever, but they never really let the songs develop much beyond "random genre excursion". Some of it is intriguing - "With My Own Bare Hands" is a great tribute to cock-rock and features has some really funny lyrics, and "Learnin' to Love" is a dumb bluegrass parody that will destroy your brain. But there's not much else to sustain them - it's like Chocolate and Cheese if it was full of nothing but songs like "Take Me Away" and "Drifter in the Dark". There are some interesting ideas on here, but not everything really works - I like the idea of intentionally botching the auto-tune on "Spirit Walker", but the song itself sounds only half-finished. While "Shamemaker" is a neat parody of garbage Brit-pop, it doesn't hit second gear. They only really get ambitious for the last two songs - the progged-out "Woman and Man" is over 10 minutes long and features a good driving guitar jam (perhaps a result of playing "Voodoo Lady" live one too many times), and "Your Party" is a jazzy adult contemporary tune with Gene doing what sounds like a Marlon Brando impression. If there's one thing you can say about this album, it's that Ween is really getting good at sounding like other groups; "Sweetheart in the Summer" and "Blue Balloon" sound like an entirely different band. Overall, there is some fun to be had here, but for once there's not much to say about it besides "yep, that's a Ween album" (not that people like me won't try).
Unfortunately, this page ends on a bittersweet note; apparently Aaron Freeman wasn't able to separate himself from his Geen Ween drug-fiend persona, and broke up the band once he realized he wouldn't be able to get clean otherwise. I do believe that Ween will be back someday, though the other members of the band are understandably pissed at how sudden the split was (Dean found out about it through Twitter like everyone else). In the meantime, Freeman released a collection of Rod McKuen covers called Marvellous Clouds which I may review someday. Dean is apparently doing a solo album and some new Moistboyz stuff.