Of Prince and spines
Fifteen minutes into a thoughtful, often painful discussion of the music of Ween--one that goes into influences and intent, touching on technique and style and the influences of Leonard Cohen and Prince--the man known as Gene Ween lets out a loud sigh. "Hey, you're sitting here making me analyze Ween, man," says Gene (born into this world as Aaron Freeman), in the tone of someone forced to write a 145-page essay on the meaning of nothingness and turn it in by yesterday.
He says it with such exasperation because Freeman and his partner Mickey Malchiondo (known as Dean Ween) claim not to think about their own music, so why the hell should someone else? This is something they do for fun, Freeman proclaims, music made to entertain an audience. If it happens to sound smarter than it is, to come off as the history of pop music harnessed by misguided and shape-shifting geniuses, then fine. Just don't hassle them about it.
"If I look up to anybody it's like Frank Sinatra or even Boyz II Men," Freeman says. "They're both just out there to entertain and make people have fun. Frank Sinatra brings smiles to people's faces because he's just out there to entertain. If he brings a smile to your face, it's just because you're like, 'Aw, I can't believe this makes me feel so good, and it makes me happy,' and that's all I want Ween to do. That's the only legacy I want Ween to leave--if I'm looking at the public's angle, anyway."
In an era when pop-music homage often goes no further than Urge Overkill's retreading of Kiss cliches and Neil Diamond covers (a fine idea, to a point), the "brothers" Ween are like graduate students taking first-grade classes--the smartest kids in the room, who show off and act up, then deny it when caught. Though both Freeman and Malchiondo are 24, they are the rock and roll children who never quite grew up--Peter Pans who actually score with Wendy, then head to the store for some smokes and beer, never to return. It's not for nothing that Freeman often sounds like a child, speeding up his voice to a whiny squeal as he recites such lines as "My pony coughed up snot in the driveway, and I think his lung's fucked up" (from "Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony") and "Why they wanna see my spine, mommy?" (from the immortal "Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)").
Theirs is a world crudely constructed from worn-out building blocks--musicians who use ingrained sounds to create something entirely new and unique, storytellers who cram their lyrics with in-jokes and references to old jobs ("Pumpin' Gas Man," "Joppa Road") and their hometowns in Jersey and Pennsylvania. To listen to the Ween brand of DIY rock and roll--one that skirts funk and tramples punk--is to be treated to the most personal kind of music: pop music reshaped and restructured till it sounds right to them. Whether you get it or not--whether you are offended by a song like "Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)" from their new Chocolate and Cheese or uncertain why the music to "The HIV Song" is so cheery or unclear about the Sunoco references--makes no difference to them. It says a lot that the image on the Chocolate and Cheese disc is a drawing of a fist shooting the finger.
Their debut, 1990's God Ween Satan--The Oneness, and its follow-up, The Pod, were great jokes unto themselves, music created by two kids who knew how to play their instruments well enough to pretend they had picked them up an hour ago. God Ween Satan sounded almost like the work of a child who tries to sing along with the radio, mangling words and melodies of pop hits till they become something else. The record winds up almost as a send-up of heroes and icons (Springsteen with "Old Man Thunder," Prince on his own "Shockadelica," the Beastie Boys with "Old Queen Cole") and as its own bizarre entity, a collage of distorted sounds and amateurish noodlings done on a four-track--high art masquerading as a goof, or maybe the other way around.
"We don't see it as a joke at all," Freeman says. "We never did. But a lot of people perceive it that way. It's cool that it makes them smile or laugh or whatever, but it's not a joke. We never saw it as making a joke, unless we wrote a song called, like, 'Canada Sucks.' We wrote a song called 'Canada Sucks,' and we were both laughing really hard when we wrote the song, and it was a joke obviously. Other than that, we totally write serious songs all the time."
The Pod, though, is almost unlistenable (which may be the punchline), its music buried somewhere underneath this distracting buzz that seems to run throughout the record. With its cover parody of The Songs of Leonard Cohen, it seemed more like an opportunity to showcase wacky song titles ("Strap on that jammy pac," "Mononucleosis," and "She fucks me") than to actually flesh out what God Ween Satan had begun.
But if The Pod was a step backward into shit, then Pure Guava, their major-label debut for Elektra at the end of 1992, was a bona fide Ween-er (ooof), proof that what some mistake for novelty is often genius waving its dick at the world. "Push Th' Little Daisies" was the minor hit single that shouldn't have been--as catchy as it was annoying, as perfect as it was ridiculous--and the rest of the record followed suit, an obnoxiously tasteless record (see: "Reggaejunkiejew," "Flies on My Dick," "Touch My Tooter") and often poetic one (see: "Little Birdy") that flaunted its brilliance and innocent arrogance. When Pure Guava was sent to critics, there was a note from Melchiondo that began: "It just might be the best record of all time, but probably not since most music sucks."
But all three were midgets compared to the giant that is Chocolate and Cheese, the best Prince album the now-unpronounceable-one never made--The Black Album performed by P-Funk and written by Roger Miller or Leonard Cohen. Recording for the first time on 24-track equipment, the boys have created one of the best records of the year because it's as challenging and dense as it is goofy and exhilarating. None of the 16 songs sounds like the others or like anything on the previous albums, bounding from Robert Fripp-esque lounge rock ("Take Me Away") to the bizarre Middle Eastern funk of "I Can't Put My Finger on It" to the Talking Heads-ish "Voodoo Lady" to the dark, twisted barrio-born "Buenos Tardes Amigo" (a noir-rock tale of murder and betrayal as sung by Freeman in a mock Latin accent).
But it's the funk numbers up front that separate the men from the Boyz II Men: "Freedom of '76" and "Roses are Free" are slices of Philly-Prince-phunk that groove like the Ohio Players and move like the Chambers Brothers, the most perfect re-creations of soul ever sung by someone who had a Bar Mitzvah. And Malchiondo's solo on the instrumental "A Tear For Eddie" (Eddie Hazel, that is, the legendary P-Funk guitarist) is a million miles away from parody, a loving tribute to an idol. If nothing else, the Ween boys are chameleons that adapt to whatever they're listening to at the time, able to strip off the fat and digest the meat till all that's left is shiny bone.
"'Spinal Meningitis' is purely 'Spinal Meningitis' with no other influence except the spine," Freeman explains. "All I know is I listen to a lot of different music, and I love it. We both make this music and it's us. It may go into a million different forms, but we really don't analyze it. The closest you could get was maybe we were listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen for a week, and then we wrote a song together about an experience we had, and it just wound up sounding like Leonard Cohen. That's how I could see us being influenced.
"We're not really smart enough to be They Might Be Giants. I think They Might Be Giants is, like, a whole lot smarter than we are, which I am glad we're not as smart as They Might Be Giants because we'd probably suck like I think they do, pretty much. I was never really into college-frat-smart-college rock, and not to be analytical of who they are, that's what I see them, and I'd rather listen to Zeppelin or something. We're just scumbags basically who do a lot of drugs and just fuckin' make music, and it's always changing."
Ween performs November 19 at Deep Ellum Live. Guided By Voices, the Grifters, and Strapping Fieldhands open.
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