The Over/Under: Ween

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Even as teenagers spazzing around in their suburban Philadelphia homes, Dean Ween (Mickey Melchiondo) and Gene Ween (Aaron Freeman) offered a giddily irresponsible, snot-fueled antidote to the tiresome PC earnestness that characterized popular music throughout the 1990s. Ween began in the mid-’80s as a lo-fi bedroom act, producing a handful of unhinged four-track cassette releases and rapidly moved up the indie-label chain—first Twin/Tone, then Shimmy-Disc—to land an inexplicable major-label contract with Elektra for the group’s third “official” album, 1992’s remarkable Pure Guava. Since then, on both label-attached records and a dizzying stream of self-released recordings, Ween has delighted in nothing more than vivisecting pop music forms and twisting them into new shapes—or pushing them far beyond their logical endpoints. In addition to their astonishing talent for mimicry and parody, however, Freeman and Melchiondo are also (and this is a point that’s rarely been made with sufficient emphasis) musicians—and students of pop music—of the very first order. Anyone who’s heard the group tackle note-perfect readings of ’70s sap rock with a straight face (such as Billy Joel’s “Honesty” or Wings’ “Band On The Run”) has to recognize that for all its smartass, for two decades Ween has been one of the smartest, most exceptionally gifted bands in rock. That may seem an odd claim to make about a group so energetically dedicated to absurdist goofing, but to sink into Ween’s catalog is to nuzzle the brown underbelly of pop-music history and hear what the top-40 hit parade might have sounded like after a steady diet of whippets, Ballantine’s scotch and carry-out chimichangas. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of debut GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, here’s our take on the most overrated and underrated songs in Ween’s catalog. Hail the Boognish, mang.

:: The Five Most Overrated Ween Songs
1. “Piss Up A Rope” (1996)

The idea behind 12 Golden Country Greats, Ween’s honky-tonk record, is unalloyed genius. The band recorded the album—10 songs total—in Nashville, with a staggering roster of Music City session legends, including the Jordanaires and Charlie McCoy. To date, it’s Ween’s only album-length genre exercise, and though it wisely runs shorter than most of its other records, there are a couple of moments where the joke wears thin. “Piss Up A Rope,” one of the straighter chuckles on the record, is one. The punch line here is a send-up of the macho swagger of he-man, my-woman-done-me-wrong braggadocio, but after the cheeky first verse, the rest of the song falls a little flat. Unlike other tracks on the record—the equally bratty but smarter “Mr. Richard Smoker,” for instance—the song doesn’t do much to unpack the genre other than stretch its conventions to the limit. At its best, 12 Golden Country Greats pushes country forms into uneasy territory. Though it’s a good joke, “Piss Up A Rope” is one that passes quickly.

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2. “Ocean Man” (1997)
The slower demo version of “Ocean Man,” heard here, is actually a little more interesting than the album cut, heard on aquatic concept record The Mollusk. Sluggish and watery, the vocals seem to burble up from the sea floor, coating the track with a brackish slime that’s missing from the final, cleaner version. The Mollusk is filled with excellent songs, as are all of Ween’s albums, but especially if you hear it in sequence, “Ocean Man” doesn’t quite meet the standards of the best work on the record. That it’s become one of the album’s better-known songs, overshadowing more interesting moments like “I’m Dancing In The Show Tonight” and “The Golden Eel,” is something of a mystery.

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3. “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)” (1994)
Chocolate And Cheese contains three of the most profoundly upsetting rock songs ever recorded: “The HIV Song,” “Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?” and “Spinal Meningitis.” By any standard of measurement, that’s an incredible hat trick—and one no other band could pull off, in my estimation. “Spinal Meningitis” gets nosed out by the other two, but mainly on style points. The lyrics of “Mister” paint as disturbing a picture as you’ll ever want to imagine in pop music, while the happy carnival music of “HIV” initially makes the jaw drop in disbelief. If your reaction moves to laughter, even on multiple hearings of the song, it’s an uneasy, shaky laughter. The silly “smile on, mighty Jesus” pun in “Spinal Meningitis” blunts the force of the song more fully than the others, and on multiple listenings, it’s the only one of the three that doesn’t get uglier the more you hear it. Granted, that’s like sporting the least horrifying medical abnormality in the sideshow, but who puts these three deranged songs on a single record and doesn’t expect us to rank them?

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4. “Bananas And Blow” (2000)
White Pepper is Ween’s least perverse record, which may be the reason “Bananas And Blow” comes off less successfully than it might. On any other album, the song would have been a light entry, a straightforward Jimmy Buffett take (Freeman has called it a Bob Weir riff), but on White Pepper, nestled among distinctly milder genre-twisting tunes, the easy parody is made to carry more weight than it’s able to support.

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5. “You Fucked Up” (1990)
Here’s the starting gun, according to the “official” discography: the opening shot on GodWeenSatan. At just more than 90 seconds, “You Fucked Up” is beloved by fans of Ween’s rawer, punkier side, and it’s a great leadoff track. But what was remarkable even about Ween’s earliest recordings was the band’s deconstruction of genres. In that context, “You Fucked Up” isn’t the most creatively grating cut on the album. I’d rate “Papa Zit” or the second half of “Birthday Boy” above it.

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:: The Five Most Underrated Ween Songs
1. “So Long, Jerry” (1996)

Recorded during the 12 Golden Country Greats sessions and originally released as the b-side of “Piss Up A Rope,” “So Long, Jerry” is one of Ween’s most moving performances, another aspect of the band’s art that rarely gets the mention it deserves. As much as they love exploding genres, they’re fans of the genres they explode (the joke wouldn’t work otherwise), and “So Long, Jerry” is as heartfelt a song as they’ve ever recorded. Reportedly a tribute to Jerry Garcia, who died the year before the release of the album, “So Long, Jerry” is a criminal omission from its final track list. And while I’m yapping about it, so is “I Got No Darkside,” which also dates from these sessions and is available on several unofficial compilations.

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2. “With My Own Bare Hands” (2007)
You could flog a thesaurus for a solid hour and never come up with enough adjectives for this cut from La Cucaracha, one of the most punishing tracks in the Ween repertoire. The song hits like a car crusher right out of the gate. There are several wonderful things about “With My Own Bare Hands,” but among my favorites are the way Freeman bum rushes the line “I’m gonna be your lawnmower/And cut your fuckin’ grass” and the liberated cock-rock nonsense lyric breakdown that occurs in the fourth verse. It’s a rare song that can send up its genre with equal parts love and smartass. Every time I hear Freeman break forth with “take a shit on the bitch and fuck hooba-jooba,” I weep with happiness. That’s just me. Oh, and also: Melchiondo’s guitar solo sticks it in and breaks it off.

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3. “Pollo Asado” (1991)
Full disclosure: I’m one of those Scotchgard-heads who finds The Pod to be Ween’s career high point, no pun intended. I love everything about that goddamn record, from the snotty ripoff of Leonard Cohen’s The Best Of cover art to the murky aura of the music, which sounds like it’s been coated in cough syrup. When I’m laid up on the couch with a high fever, this is my go-to album, and nothing on it sets me to laughing harder than “Pollo Asado,” a stoned-out sendup of a Mexican fast-food order set to a faux-Muzak score. Without giving anything away, the foozle-headed character voices and the senseless transaction they’re embarked on elevate the song from stoner skit into absurdist gibberish. It’s a hysterical performance and one that reveals why producer Kramer latched onto Ween the moment he saw them play live.

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4. “Cover It With Gas And Set It On Fire” (1993)
Remember up there in the overrated section, when I talked about disturbing pop songs? I forgot to mention “Cover It With Gas,” which I first heard on double-disc live release Paintin’ The Town Brown, but which is heard in its studio version (from the Skycruiser EP) here. I haven’t the foggiest notion what this track is about, but it sums up Ween’s penchant for terror rock better than any other song I can think of. The repeated shriek of the title, the siren that wails throughout the song’s three minutes, the squalling car-crash sound effects—this is one of the most upsetting soundscapes in all of alt-rock.

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5. “What Deaner Was Talkin’ About” (1994)
After the squeal and throttle of “Cover It With Gas,” how about one of the shiniest, poppiest songs in the band’s playbook? “Pork Roll Egg And Cheese” from The Pod runs a tight second, but “What Deaner Was Talkin’ About” is likely the band’s most Beatlesesque moment; Dean Ween has identified the Beatles as his favorite band (just ahead of the Butthole Surfers), and you can hear that love in the song’s bright melody and sweetly sung vocals. And in a songbook filled with snark and darkness, “What Deaner Was Talkin’ About” stands out as a charming, affable moment—not the only one in the band’s catalog, certainly, but one of its friendliest and most congenial.

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—Eric Waggoner

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