Ween-ie Roast

Love without respect makes for a problematic relationship, and that's exactly the relationship Ween has to classic rock. Almost every minute of White Pepper reveals Bucks County Pennsylvania boys Mickey "Dean Ween" Melchiondo and Aaron "Gene Ween" Freeman's hopeless love for the bombastic detachment of cocaine-fueled '70s radio hits (think about that title for a second). Yet it also reveals the duo's unbridled contempt for every one of those hits they've ever sung along to. "Bananas and Blow" (as in "stuck in my cabana, livin' on ...") (RealAudio excerpt) is a parody of Jimmy Buffett so ruthless and dead-on that it may stick to him forever; the less successful "Pandy Fackler" lifts the easy bounce and jazzy changes of Boz Scaggs, and throws in a slightly ludicrous keyboard solo; and the kiss-off "Falling Out" (RealAudio excerpt) appears to be a riposte to John Lennon's "How Do You Sleep?" — ghost-written in 2000 for Paul McCartney to sing in 1973.

Ween seem to be angling to be the new Steely Dan, masking their snickers behind a veil of deadpan perfectionism. Sometimes that works out rather well, particularly on "Even If You Don't" (RealAudio excerpt), a perfect 1978 FM single — right down to its tricky meter and wah-wah guitar solo — that barely tips its hand. Unfortunately, they can't resist a dumb joke (vocal filters are a particular Ween weakness), and their deliberately overblown stadium moves and affected delivery, not to mention the smirky smut they sneak into their lyrics whenever they can, recall the sterile comedy of, say, bad Frank Zappa. These sorts of strategies were far funnier when they were a twosome whose recording budget was just enough to buy a couple of packs of King Dons and re-upholster their favorite bong slipcover, but now that they've got a full band and major-label studio time, they don't have the excuse of unpretentious spontaneity.

Ween are at their best when they either dive headlong into ridiculousness or play it totally straight (admittedly, they don't do the latter very often). Here, however, they walk a rickety platform between those extremes and frequently fall into the ironizer's pit. ("Stay Forever" is the closest they come to a jokeless track here, but the joke seems to be that it's an unrelievedly banal, lite-rock love song.) On earlier albums, Ween always sounded as if they were on the verge of giggles: schoolboys cracking up at their own goofiness. White Pepper, though, is as joyless as comedy gets. Ween sneer so thoroughly at every note-perfect pastiche they pull off that it's impossible to tell where the band's real sympathies lie — or, for that matter, if there's even any kind of music they really like that they don't hate just about as much.