Ween is just about the most frustrating band in the world. Dean (Mickey Melchiondo) and Gene (Aaron Freeman) are extraordinary songwriters and musicians -- versatile, charming, and clever -- who can pull off any kind of vibe they like: old-time country, hair metal, disco funk, expansive prog. They're also perverse in the manner of the smartest potheads in high school. Getting straight A's would be trivial for them, and they'll occasionally ace a test just to prove it, but mostly they'd rather just annoy the teachers. It isn't just that nothing is sacred in Ween's worldview; nothing the duo encounters survives without getting ripped apart and set on fire and pissed on. The pair can write songs -- great songs. (Check out Mary Lou Lord's version of their "Birthday Boy" on the Jabberjaw: Pure Sweet Hell compilation and realize how they could've turned out.) But everything Ween records is larded with scatology, derailed in favor of dumb jokes, sung in silly accents or through dopey effects. It's a little creepy: There's a germ of contempt even in tributes to the music they clearly love.
As with their studio albums, the band's new double-disc live retrospective, Paintin' the Town Brown, was put together on the cheap and then some; assembled from decaying cassettes, it was originally going to be offered only through Ween's Web site. The collection covers the evolution of the band from two goofy, hypercaffeinated guys with their backing tracks on tape to lumbering full-on rock behemoth, with a side trip into their 12 Golden Country Greats tour with Nashville session guys. Most of these versions aren't necessarily the best they've played, but they are the most excessive -- the ones prefaced with elaborate instrumental intros or dissolving into chaos. "Japanese Cowboy" breaks into a lush piano fantasia that makes its similarity to the theme from Chariots of Fire more explicit; you can't indict Ween for its borderline racist lyrics, because their force field of irony distances them from everything they sing and play. Ditto for the nastiness of another country tune, "Mister Richard Smoker," whose title nonetheless rhymes cutely with "you're an Ono Yoker."
And still their craft keeps glimmering through the mounds of dreck. "Cover It with Gas and Set It on Fire" is flawless, ultracatchy mock metal, with a tweedly-eedly guitar solo that's at least as good as what it's parodying. "Doctor Rock" plunders the Kiss catalog for its groove and the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" for its melody, and ends up earning its devil horns. Only a band that refuses to take itself seriously could get away with Ween's arena-rock excesses, to which the second disc of Paintin' devotes itself: three tracks, including 26 minutes of "Poop Ship Destroyer" and 31 of "Vallejo." These are not half-hour compositions, they're teeny little songs stretched out to spoon in long-ass, over-the-top guitar solos, climactic riffing, tripped-out Vocoderisms, and every other pandering rock cliché Ween can think of. They're followed by "Puffy Cloud," a little sing-along about the band's work methodology: "My brain is dead from too much pot / Cause Gener and I smoked too much pot." It breaks down halfway through, naturally. They can be funny as hell, but they're letting their talents go to waste. If they ever get out of detention hall, they could actually make something of themselves.