[20 October 2003]
So once again Dean and Gene Ween have returned after a few years to grace us with their newest disc Quebec. To some fans, the wait has been a long one. Their previous release, White Pepper was often met with the same confusion that was heaped upon Weezer and their Green Album. I enjoyed both of those releases, finding each album to be a refreshing step into a shinier, more realized sound. Not that I didn’t enjoy earlier efforts. After all, it was a chance purchase of Ween’s second album, The Pod, back when I was in high school that made me a fan. In the end, White Pepper felt like the most natural evolution from Chocolate and Cheese that the group detoured from with Twelve Golden Country Greats and The Mollusk.
There was a time when I dismissed that country album. Now I find it to be one of the best in Ween’s catalog. However, The Mollusk always felt like a tired, weird-for-weird’s sake attempt at psychedelic sounds. But Ween never needed to try to be weird; they simply always were. So by the time they did issue the “mature sounding” White Pepper with enough yuks to keep everyone amused, it sounded quite impressive. However, Quebec only ups the ante of that previously polished sound with not much to offer in the vein of “classic Ween.”
Not to say that growth is bad. I’d be the last person to demand the same old same old from any of my musical heroes. But there’s something positively stagnant sounding about Quebec. It doesn’t sound like a holding pattern album, but at the same time it doesn’t go anywhere new, either. What it does sound like is an album that could have—and has been—recorded by any number of indie label groups with a small taste for the bizarre. And coming from anyone else, perhaps Quebec would have been a major album. But from Ween, it feels anticlimactic. It sounds more like a collection of decent b-sides more than a truly engaging album.
Old pal and producer Andrew Weiss was brought in once again to helm the boards. Perhaps Ween felt like White Pepper was flawed because Weiss hadn’t been there for that one. If anything, Weiss has made Quebec sound like a cross between The Mollusk and White Pepper, taking the blandest aspects of both and boiling them down into one tasteless stew. And by tasteless, I don’t mean dirty. Even the old dirty jokes of classic Ween tracks have been whittled away. This is maturation at its most dignified. Ween have All Grown Up.
I will say that the music is often as catchy and unsettling as it ever was. The chord progressions and melodies that run rampant through songs like “Transdermal Celebration”, “Among His Tribe”, and “Tried and True” still have that surreal quality to them that always earmarked the best of Ween’s work. But for some reason, even that old formula seems tired this time out. You hear the strangeness, be it in the ironic melody or slowed down voices, and you get the feeling that you’ve come to expect that, so where are the new tricks? There aren’t any this time. There’s just the tastefully played music and a few exhausted ideas that were played out albums ago.
And the goofy songs really do feel like b-sides and leftovers. “So Many People in the Neighborhood” is not only irritating, but it’s one of the dullest irritating tracks Ween have ever recorded. At least past stuff like “Candy” and “Molly” were aggravating but still had that something to them that made you want to listen to them the whole way through. “So Many People in the Neighborhood” warrants an instant push of the skip button, as does the weary weirdness of “Captain” and the wank of “The Fucked Jam”.
The other songs tend to be marred with a kind of retro-hippie sound. For all of Dean and Gene’s complaints regarding hippie kids showing up at a lot of their concerts, you get the feeling that those fans actually rubbed off on them quite a bit. The dippiness that surrounds “Among His Tribe” (“All the old would teach the young to heed the word of the master’s tongue”) and “Transdermal Celebration” (“Hey, hey / A billion miles to Mark A / Lay on the lawn, he’s already home / When the morning ray hits his face”) sounds like the worst of both Phish and the Grateful Dead at their trippiest. This is not “The Stallion”, my friends. No, this stuff is content to be a pastiche of past Ween glories.
Even the rock here seems forced. The opening track, “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night”, sounds like the guys were really grasping for the older days. Lines like “There’ll be no second chance for you / Tomorrow you’ll be black and blue / Show your friends your new tattoo / 911 won’t help you, fool” is hardly the best these guys can do. This is a routine rock song that, again, most anyone could have done. I was reminded of the great Tenacious D and their sense of irony and rock and roll and how they have really capitalized on that that is—something Ween were able to do at one time as well.
Then there’s the stab at humor in “Zoloft” that sounds like space age bachelor pad music. Again, this kind of thing seems expected. Ah, Ween’s doing a funny song about anti-depressants now. OK, the joke’s wearing way thin by now. Later on there is the token catchy pop/weird song (“Happy Colored Marbles”) that fits the same mold as older classics such as “Pork Roll Egg and Cheese”, “Push Th’ Little Daisies”, and other fare, as well as the smart-assed swinging sort of tune called “Hey There Fancy Pants” that sounds like nothing more than an update of “Mister Richard Smoker” minus the country vibes.
On the whole, Quebec is a very tired affair. For the first time in their career, Ween sound like they’ve run out of ideas. Perhaps they have. Perhaps it’s time to just change gears completely and dump out an album that doesn’t sound like Ween. That is exactly where White Pepper succeeded. But maybe they weren’t happy with that, which is fine. It’s just too bad that Quebec sounds like nothing more than leftover ideas. Perhaps there will be a number of the old fans out there who find this album as good as many of the others. I, however, can’t help but feel that they could have done so much better. Maybe next time.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ween-quebec/