New Hope, PA's finest sons rediscover the funny on their most genre-bending release in well over a decade.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about Ween is the idea that they are some kind of a joke band.
“We’re just a band with a sense of humor,” Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman had once stated during an interview for CMJ New Music Report back in 2000. “People who say that we’re a joke band really don’t listen to us and they’ve never seen us live. Weird Al Yankovic is funny and tries to make that kind of music, but we’re not really like that... We just try to keep it simple and scummy in Ween. Nothing pisses me off more than when we get compared to They Might Be Giants. They’re like smart, anal college humor. Our humor is straight up scumbag.”
Sure, Ween may not be liked being called a joke band, but that certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t the fiercest, funniest rock band to fuse strange humor and expert musicianship since Frank Zappa unleashed The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life shortly before giving up the guitar for a conductor’s wand. And while the funny has always been a mainstay in the group’s music throughout the course of their 23-year career together, their last three albums seem to have focused more on Dean and Gene’s uncanny aptitudes as bonafide songcrafters who are just as capable at constructing road-ready rock epics on par with the legendary sounds they parody.
Indeed, songs like the Moog-heavy “Buckingham Green” from 1997’s salt-water masterpiece The Mollusk or the prog-tastic “The Grobe” off 2000’s White Pepper or the psychedelic majesty of “Captain” from 2003’s Quebec, not to mention a kick-ass touring band that helps Dean and Gene deliver occasional four-hour-plus marathon performances, have since made them not only legends on the jamband/taper circuit, but genuine straightfaced rock heroes to boot. So much, in fact, that the ditties from these albums that do take direct aim at your funny bone have since taken a bit of a back seat to those which showcase Gene’s multi-range vocal stylings and Dean’s electrifying guitar mastery, leaving a certain contingency of their fanbase, who expect Ween to keep them in Scotchguard-huffing chuckles on a consistent basis, a wee bit disenchanted.
Well, for those of you nutters who have been waiting for Ween to make a long-awaited return their roots as the funniest genuine rock group the world has seen since the Bonzo Dog Band will find reason to praise the almighty Boognish upon listening to La Cucaracha.
Not since Chocolate & Cheese has there been a Ween album more directly LOL hilarious or sonically diversified than the band’s highly anticipated label debut on Rounder Records. Perhaps it was the idea of Dean and Gene renting out a 200-year-old farmhouse in their fabled hometown of New Hope, Pennsylvania, echoes of their humble beginnings of recording inside a horse farm shack they so lovingly dubbed “The Pod” (hence the title of their 1991 absurdist masterstroke), for the marathon recording session from which La Cucaracha that inspired this drastic resurgence of comedic prowess back into the Ween fray. Or maybe it was the black mold inside the studio that had gotten to their heads. Whatever the case may be, what this album represents to the Ween legacy is the most quintessential statement of this band’s powers as both musicians and songwriters, moreso than any other album they have released to date.
Though not directly championed as a concept album, La Cucaracha does feature many songs that center around the theme of relationships, be it ones of love, commerce, murder or spirituality, told in the most dizzying array of musical styles Ween has provided for its listener since Pure Guava. The most surprising being the highly controversial “Friends”, a full-on Night at the Roxbury flavored Eurotrash dance anthem that initially was reported to turning a lot of fans off upon its first appearance as the title cut of the EP the group released of the same name over the summer. But for those of you whom the Weens’ goofy stab at making the KTU playlist went over the head, they reward the challenge by providing 12 more tracks guaranteed to give “The Stallion” or “Captain Fantasy” a run for their money as your favorite Ween song ever.
Among the best of the bunch is “Object”, a strangely beautiful mid-tempo ballad centering around a serial killer and his prey that would easily have been more of an appropriate tune for that lovely girl to have been listening to during her car drive to her demise in Silence of the Lambs than Petty’s “American Girl”. Then there’s “Learnin’ to Love”, a total country hoedown about horseracing that’s better than anything on 1996’s 12 Golden Country Greats, outside of “Piss Up a Rope”, of course. The hard-driving x-rated rocker “My Own Bare Hands” is easily the best Dean-sung tune since “The Blarney Stone”, highlighted by the profound couplet “She’s gonna be my college professor, studying my dick / She’s gonna get her Master’s Degree in fucking me!!!” They also try their hand, quite excellently mind you, at pure dirt floor dub with “The Fruit Man” and even a summer song, “Sweetheart in the Summer”, allegedly inspired by the softer side of Blink 182 (don’t ask us!).
For those of you who thought The Mollusk, White Pepper and Quebec were Ween’s true trifecta of classics based on the strength of their intrepid skills as musicians, fear not. La Cucaracha is not ENTIRELY all fun and laughs. “Man and Woman”, the album’s token epic, is a 10-minute-plus guitar jam that is more Santana III than anything the Mars Volta have yet to come up with that also serves as the uplifting salvo in the relationship thread of the album with Gene’s reprieve of “Woman and Man/Working together". And lest we forget to mention the money shot of this record, “Your Party”, a wine-funk coaster inspired by Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat that features the sweet, sweet saxophone of smooth jazz great David Sanborn and some of Gene’s finest lyrics to date. His line about the wide array of fine foods at this party which he sings of, “There were candy and spices and tri-colored pastas / The meat was carved from succulent juices / Served on a platter of the purest gold”, would bring even Ron Burgundy to velvet tears, laughter or otherwise and deserves a place amongst “Don’t Get 2 Close 2 My Fantasy” and "I Can't Put My Finger on It" as one of the five greatest tunes in the Ween canon.
So while Gene and Dean Ween balk at the “joke band” tag that uninformed journos might have laid on them throughout the course of their 23 years together, their transformation from a pair of guys with nothing more than a tape machine, guitars and enough homegrown drugs to kill a cow to one of the most successful and dynamic touring bands of the last 20 years is perhaps the most elaborate gag ever pulled on rock ‘n’ roll to date.