I remember being at a party years ago, talking music with a friend. He said: “You’re either obsessed with Ween, or you don’t even know who they are.” Though I appreciated the hyperbole, I was actually somewhere in the middle at the time. I knew them. I liked a handful of songs. But I really didn’t like all the rest. There was a certain line drawn with Ween: I towed the line, mostly because I could never figure out if they were taking a piss on music, or if they were actual geniuses. Turns out both are certainly true.
It’s hard to describe Ween to someone who’s never heard them, or who’s only familiar with their early forays into the strange that happened to find the radio (such as their first big hit, “Push th’ Little Daisies” — a song featuring their signature voice-manipulation vocals, which is either annoying or very annoying). It’s impossible to say if they are a rock band, a prog band, a soul band, a country band, a pop band, a zydeco band, a psychedelic band, or a parody band. Because they weave in and out of genres so seamlessly, Ween is all of those, often on the same record.
Honestly, calling Ween an experimental band is the only way to make any sort of sense.
I’ve recently immersed myself in their catalog, which is vast. Their early work was home-recorded, bizarre, drug-fueled. I think it would be what Trey Parker and Matt Stone would create (incidentally, those two would direct the video for Ween’s “Even If You Don’t” from their poppiest record, White Pepper). Their second record on Elektra (and their first in an actual recording studio in lieu of the four-track recordings of their previous records), Chocolate and Cheese, garnered them more attention thanks in part to the funky masterpiece “Voodoo Lady.”
In 1996, they wrote and released a bonafide country record, 12 Golden Country Greats, which included performances from renowned Nashville session players such as Charlie McCoy and Buddy Spicher. They followed that with the aquatic-themed concept record, The Mollusk. Then came their most accessible record, the aforementioned White Pepper. 2003 saw the release of Quebec, which was their first post-Elektra record. That was followed by Shinola, Vol. 1, a collection of oddities, and their final record, 2007’s La Cucaracha.
Sorting through their discography is arduous. Between the strange and experimental songs, there are absolute gems of stunning design. So stunning, it makes one wonder why all of their songs couldn’t have been built around such structure. But as geniuses do, Ween planned their trajectory in their own form: eccentric, and gorgeous. And in the circle of their fans, they are indeed underground cult Gods, not unlike one of their biggest influences, Frank Zappa.
That all said, here’s a list of my Ween essentials. These are songs of which I’ve always been most fond. Click on the song titles for a listen.
Gabrielle (from Shinola, Vol. 1)
Ween has a long list of songs written in the vein of other artists. They could be construed as either parody or tribute, or maybe even both. “Gabrielle” is a song that out-Thin-Lizzys Thin Lizzy. The impression of Phil Lynott is impeccable, right down to the cadence of the delivery. Try to listen to this and not wanna jump around singing the chorus so loudly your neighbors weep.
Buckingham Green (from The Mollusk)
A grandiose psych-classic that would fit perfectly on Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets. The guitar work is inspiring.
Flutes of Chi (from White Pepper)
A lovely pop song, pure and true. You can hear the Beatles influence during the backward solo midway through, as well as with the melodies and Indian-infused accompaniments.
Did You See Me? (from Shinola, Vol. 1)
Another gorgeous psych-ode to the early era of Pink Floyd. It’s trippy and almost perfect.
Cold Blows the Wind (from The Mollusk)
A variation of the traditional folk-ballad “The Unquiet Grave.” It soars with beautiful harmony vocals, and there’s a moog to give it a unique stylistic separation.
The Argus (from The Mollusk)
A mellow ode to the many-eyed beast, that harkens to 70s psych-folk with chorus-laden guitars and succinct melodies that might make Ian Anderson wistful.
Baby Bitch (from Chocolate and Cheese)
An acoustic love song gone wrong. There is an odd poignancy to the confessional lyrics that are contrasted by the venomous Fuck Offs.
Transdermal Celebration (from Quebec)
As infectious a song as you’ll hear anywhere, ever. It also features some of their eccentric lyrical-content prowess. Simply phenomenal and my favorite of theirs to blast loudly.
If You Could Save Yourself (You’d Save Us All) (from Quebec)
I’ve listened to this song around 30 times over the past week. There’s something about it, something hypnotic, to me. Something apocalyptic. And it’s Gene Ween’s greatest vocal accomplishment. During the second chorus, few songs achieve a more powerful crescendo, with his voice rising, the strings swelling higher, and that line: I was on my knees / when you knocked me down. Simply heart-wrenching.
This list is by no means exclusive. I love other Ween songs, and so should you. But these specific ones happen to hit me in a way that forced me to dedicate an article to them. There’s a certain mesmerism to what Ween does. Beyond being able to master myriad musical genres with their technical chops, beyond having a bit of fun with the art of crafting songs, they show that music can initiate a particular resonance to a listener. And I am over the moon for that.
(Song recommendation by C. Aloysius Mariotti)