Ween’s White Pepper turns 20 and Simon Kirk attempts to dissect the weird and wonderful world of Philadelphia’s greatest musical paradox.
Not so long ago amid the shitstorm that was Brexit, a die-hard Ween fan and dear friend of mine suggested to me that “Ween need to tour. It would save the country.”
These are the kinds of eccentric remarks that gets trotted out from the cult of Ween.
It’s true, of course. Genius, in fact.
Philadelphians Dean (Mickey Melchiondo) and Gene Ween (Aaron Freeman) slipped the net of just about every 90s musical enclave to form their own brand of genre-hopping psychedelic oddity-rock.
Fondly known as Deaner and Gener, the duo have been held together by a steady cast of musicians over the years with bassist Dave Dreiwitz;,drummer Claude Coleman Jr. and keyboardist Glenn McClelland all becoming part of the furniture throughout Ween manor.
This steady line-up was also involved on the band’s 2000 offering, White Pepper.
Not as weird as the Butthole Surfers but slightly more adventurous than, say, The Flaming Lips, Ween were the world builders of the 90s.
They threw all comers well and truly off the scent when Push th’ Little Daisies made the charts all across the world for mass culture to gawk in unison and perceive them as some form of piss-taking novelty act.
For a change, the masses were onto something.
Piss-takers, absolutely. It’s one of Ween‘s greatest shticks, finding a dryness that most American bands fail to capture with a unique form of in-jokery.
There are many examples, but Mister Richard Smoker, taken from 1996’s 12 Golden Country Greats exemplifies Ween‘s comedic scope:
“Mister Richard smoker, you’re a poopy poker/Chardonnay & cocaine in the spa/Cigarettes and coffee breath/Little boys on crystal meth/Tonight we’ll tango in the street/You eat dark meat.”
Would they get away with writing these ditties circa 2020?
Another cut from the same album, the esteemed country-bumpkin lament, Piss up a Rope, would probably suggest not. I can almost hear the echoes of bristling outrage from the offended-by-anything crowd right now.
Yes, this new world may be one that would greet the Philadelphian pranksters with more of a furrowed brow.
While bands like Pavement thrived on clever irony which made college students gush, Ween, quite simply, didn’t give a fuck.
Most Ween fans were too off their chanks on the happy herb to even fill out the college application let alone attend.
As The Flaming Lips‘ Wayne Coyne once said. “We shit ourselves and still turn up to the party.”
Ween fit well and truly within this paradigm.
A novelty, though? No way.
Ween were much too valued by their devoted followers who were anything from – but not limited to – bedroom stoners, hedonistic thrill seekers and self-proclaimed degenerates.
Their fans were like one of the LSD-laced venison stews that Ken Kesey‘s Merry Pranksters had on the boil back in the ’60s.
Only this was the ’90s and it was a different form of prankster from all corners of the globe who could hear what Ween were saying. This was music that talked to outsiders outside of the outsiders.
While Ween definitely adhered to the Wayne Coyne adage, like always, they took it one step further.
Through their music their message was this. We’re fuck-ups and we wholeheartedly invite you to join us on the journey. Just bring the weed…
Which takes us full circle right back to their piss-pulling forays.
Just look at the title of their follow-up to the career defining The Mollusk and their first to lead us into a new century, a title which trumped 12 Golden Country Greats – an album that only had 10 tracks.
Yes, that full circle leads us to White Pepper.
It’s one of only two long-players not produced by Ween‘s de facto third member, Andrew Weiss, who made way for Grammy Award winning and influential hip-hop producer, Chris Shaw.
Shaw not only worked with the likes of LL Cool J and A Tribe Called Quest, but also with 90s artists such as Jeff Buckley, alt-country stalwarts Wilco and Welsh favourite sons the Super Furry Animals.
With an ever-spanning array of artists to boot, on paper Shaw and Ween‘s partnership looked like a match made in heaven and both parties convened at Bearsville Studio in Turtle Creek Barn studios, Woodstock, NY for White Pepper.
The Vegas-style matrimony of The Beatles‘ two masterpieces in The White Album and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
A genius only Ween could conjure up.
Well, Half Man Half Biscuit may have had something to say about that, but that’s for another day.
White Pepper starts with Exactly Where I’m At, a self-effacing psychedelic soft-rock yomp with a bit of Billy Joel homage thrown in for good measure.
“Let’s begin with the past in front and all the things that you really don’t care about now/You’d be exactly where I’m at/And to think you’ve got a grip well, look at yourself your lips are like two flaps of fat/They go front and back and flappidy flappidy flap.”
It’s a flippant heart-breaker brimming with that vintage Ween irony.
“I’m on stage it’s all an act/I’m really scared that I may fall back on the abstract/It’d be exactly where I’m at.”
A new Ween? No, just a new suit and a streamlined one at that.
Even If You Don’t is bathed in 60s psych-pop glory. It’s a ditty your parents would tap their feet to. Until they hear the lyrics…
“I love you, even if you don’t/You’ve got your knife up to my throat/What do you want to see with me?”
Ween were the masters of masking their tender moments with black comedy and here is just one of the many examples.
The track was the first of White Pepper‘s two singles, with an accompanying video which was directed by South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Again, yet another seamless matrimony.
Bananas and Blow is like a Hawaiian shirt cruise-rock waltz with Caribbean Steelpan percussion, supple guitar strumming and soul singers coming in at the obvious chorus.
You could imagine a bunch of retired cruisers slumped in the anchor lounge indulging in their all-inclusive drinks package except the drinks have been spiked with psychedelics with Deaner and Gener mockingly toasting their strung-out guests.
The track is five-star Ween, of course, which leads us off the cruise ship and into a moshpit full of Hells Angels, as the Motörhead-inspired hard-rock Stroker Ace turns things on its head.
Not only the track’s inclusion but its placing on White Pepper leapfrogs even the most absurd junctures in the band’s history and once again illustrates Ween‘s globe-trotting tourism of sound.
The mantra of expecting the unexpected reaches an outlandish crescendo here but it’s not the only dabble in the riff department with the leathered-up psych-rocker in The Grobe that sees Ween doffing the cap to Lemmy‘s first band, Hawkwind.
Back to Basom directs worship to John Lennon and Paul McCartney fictitiously dragging The Beatles into the beginning of the 70s to try their hand at a bit of West Coast rock.
“Please believe I’m only travelling/Like seeking wonder from a foreign place.”
That foreign place was probably Ween‘s blind hope of escaping The fucking Eagles. We’re still trying ourselves. And failing badly.
McClelland takes centre stage on Pandy Flacker, a joyous keyboard escapade that wouldn’t look out of place on a wedding dance floor after half a dozen beers.
Ween have always produced strung-out power ballads that melt your heart and these moments amplify the band’s caginess.
Amid all the absurdity and what-the-fuck moments, Ween have always thrown that unplayable curveball – or the golden dagger that pierces through to your heart.
On White Pepper that blade keeps on flashing with the country-tinged majesty and album’s second single, Stay Forever.
It’s a swooning hold-your-loved-one-tighter-than-ever kind of moment, rivalling Pure Guava‘s gorgeous lament in Sarah and The Mollusk‘s downright incredible It’s Gonna Be (Alright).
Glistening gemstones that Ween could have cashed in and dined out on all through the nineties and beyond.
These jewels were simple too easy to mine for Ween, though. Like all great artists, they chose the deepest and most perilous mines to explore.
Given the amount of influences dotted throughout White Pepper, one who hasn’t before indulged in the weird and wonderful world of Ween may accuse me of authoring this piece under the persuasion of a mind-altering substance.
Let me assure you, this is most certainly not the case.
Believe it or not, White Pepper is hands down Ween at their most accessible, with Stay Forever, the countrified-rocker in Falling Out and the balladeering closer, She’s Your Baby, suggesting that White Pepper was Ween‘s attempted two-finger salute at arena rock.
Ironic really, considering they were already packing out the fucking things.
Like always, though, Freeman and Melchiondo rewrote the rule book on careerism and paradoxical self-sabotage and White Pepper was yet another fine chapter in the history of the 90s greatest odyssey.
Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
In artistic terms, Ween is most certainly Russia.
Look at their image for a start, demonstrated by the sheer fact that they didn’t have one, thus tenaciously glamorising their legend. No airs and graces. A street level band for street level people.
With White Pepper, it furthered the idea that Ween were stylistically contrived and adverse to what was in vogue at the time.
A band back-burning terrains already encountered and reworking sounds in their own way, extracting something totally new.
This approach was Ween‘s greatest ruse and is the reason why they are still revered and will always be considered artistically germane.
While not disbanded, there hasn’t been a Ween album since 2007’s La Cucaracha, therefore it may seem remiss to refer to them in past tense, considering they actively toured at the back-end of last decade.
Both Freeman and Melchiondo have released solo albums during this time.
Melchiondo spends time in-between music taking out Ween fans on trawler boats for a spot of fishing. Go figure.
Past or present tense, however, Ween will always be buried deep in the conscious of their fervent cult of followers.
So, where does White Pepper sit in the sphere of Ween‘s wild discography?
While the debate rages on, it’s hard to go past The Mollusk or Chocolate and Cheese as Ween‘s finest hours – in true Ween fashion, they have more than one finest hour.
There will be many who consider others, too, of course, but White Pepper hovers very close by indeed.
Having rummaged through fan forums and various other honeypots coated with that additional glaze of Ween aroma, perhaps this anonymous poster put it best.
“When Ween makes an album, it’s as equally a Ween album as any Ween album. If you don’t know that, you don’t know Ween.”
While the ire of the Brexit storm has passed, dubious clouds still linger and coupled with the ongoing concerns of a global pandemic, maybe my dear friend’s words still hold water.
“Ween need to tour. It would save the country.”
It probably would.