CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa
On The Record: Indestructible Like The Cockroach.
There are perhaps more fitting contexts in which to discuss Ween's inexplicable new studio album, La Cucaracha, but I can't think of a better one than this: I am currently listening to it in a hotel room in deserted downtown Cedar Rapids, adjacent to a Quaker Oats factory that makes everything smell like burning dog hair, while a freight train slowly squeals through town. It is 1:17 in the morning. There are smokestacks on the horizon, a Mexican restaurant called Gringos around the corner and an abandoned jewelry store directly below me. I have spent the better part of the past five hours in a Western-themed bar in nearby Iowa City, talking about Isotope 217 and Philip Glass and Clipse with my pal Joseph, then driving back up I-80 in a rental van while the moon hung low and red in the sky. There was trance music on the radio. Somewhere along the way I burned the roof of my mouth on a slice of pizza. And Joseph got sick from drinking too much whiskey and puked in the lobby of the hotel.
La Cucaracha is clearly the soundtrack to all of this, except with more reggae. It is mind-meltingly bizarre; a chintzy, tinny, gold-lamé-wrapped baked potato of an album, thrown in a microwave and emitting sparks and flames and plumes of purple smoke that give you a headache and leave you seeing colors. It's borderline unlistenable, except that since it came out last Tuesday I've been listening to it nonstop, and I'm either much dumber or much smarter for doing so. It sounds like drugs and drinking too much and Midwestern Mexican restaurants, and Euro-trance and country and fog-machine mysticism. Which means it's basically like every other Ween album ever made — seriously jokey, scatterbrained in its focus, incredibly proficient in totally amateur ways — only multiplied by a million.
For more than 20 years now — ever since Aaron Freeman (alias Gene Ween) and Mickey Melchiondo (alias Dean Ween) met in an eighth-grade typing class and started messing around with a tape machine — Ween have been doing essentially the same thing: belching out metric tons of musical CO2; indefinable, goofy, bong- (or Scotchgard-) addled rock that somehow manages to be both hilarious and creepy, often at the same time. And the fact that they've managed to fashion a rather accomplished anti-career while doing so is perhaps the most amazing thing of all.
They've had semi-hits (1993's "Push Th' Little Daisies," from the previous year's Pure Guava) and critical acclaim ('94's Chocolate & Cheese). They've made Nashville records (the infamous 12 Golden Country Greats, which featured the boys backed by legendary Music City session players — and also only 10 songs); nautical-themed prog records; and druggy records named after French-Canadian cities. They did an amazing video with Spike Jonze that found them trying to steal the Liberty Bell (for 1994's "Freedom of '76"), and they've skewered everything from Wings-era McCartney to "Margaritaville"-era Buffett, plus Philly soul, thrash metal, twee folk and pretty much anything else you can think of. They've even recorded jingles for Pizza Hut.
And they've done it all half-seriously (well, as seriously as you can do a calypso number like "Bananas and Blow" — that's the Buffett-skewering tune — or "Mr. Richard Smoker"), always displaying a stunning level of musical proficiency and an unerring pop sensibility, plus a predilection for potty humor that rivals even the most imaginative fifth-grader. And those facts — coupled with Ween's longevity — makes them confounding and frustrating, for sure, but they've also earned the band perhaps the most rarefied musical status of all: Much like Frank Zappa or Primus or even R. Kelly, they are completely critic-proof.
Which is a good thing, because, honestly, I don't know how you'd be able to offer a critical analysis of La Cucaracha, except to say that it's probably the most "Ween" thing Ween have ever done, and if you're a fan of the Deaner and the Gener you: a) know exactly what I'm talking about; and b) already own it. Cucaracha kicks off with a chintzy game-show theme — the kind they used to play while fabulous prizes were being revealed — called "Fiesta" and wraps up with the amazing "Your Party," a smooth-jazz excursion that floats upon a satin-sheet saxophone solo from David Sanborn (for real) and recalls windswept dunes, couples' massages and glasses of white wine at dusk. In between, there are helium-voiced odes to blue balloons, Casio-fied club numbers and the aforementioned stab at reggae, plus detours into strummy, Vocoded wizard-rock and a 10-minute prog epic that starts with drums and flute but rises into a fiery exercise in interlocking guitar solos.
It's pretty great in parts, completely annoying in others — seriously, in the past week, my wife has threatened to leave me if I keep playing "Your Party," which she says reminds her of Filene's Basement, and "the theme from 'Silk Stalkings' " (you can hear the song here and read Christopher Weingarten's amazing non-review of it, too) — and totally doesn't make any sense overall, which isn't really a knock on the album in any sense. It's Ween playing to their strengths, poking fun at sacred cows, being politically incorrect and generally no longer caring what anyone has to say about them, fans included.
Except it's difficult to see why any of their fans wouldn't like La Cucaracha, which is the perfect synthesis of old, lo-fi Ween, mid-period studio-monkey Ween and current, well, old-dudes-who-like-to-wail Ween. If you're not a fan, you probably won't have an opinion of the album either way, because you're not going to listen to it. If you're a music journalist like me, you'll find that you've spent nearly 900 words trying to describe the album, yet you probably won't have an opinion either. And if you're a high-minded rock critic, you'll probably try to have an opinion about the album, but you'll find out that there's really nothing bad to say about it that hasn't already been said about every Ween album before it.
So, in essence, Ween are indestructible. They can survive nuclear holocausts and can live on a bar of soap for a week. They are musical cockroaches (hence the title of the album), and they will be here long after you and I are gone. Ween win.
So understanding all that, forming any sort of cohesive review/analysis of Cucaracha seems rather impossible. Only time can judge the album. But I will say this: It's the perfect record for wild Iowa City boozing and crushing Cedar Rapids hangovers. It's the audio equivalent of the skin hanging off the roof of your singed mouth, of smokestacks in the distance and vomit in the lobby. And so are Ween, which isn't a knock at all. In fact, it's probably the highest compliment you can pay them. And, really, can you say that about anyone else?
Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to fire up "Your Party" again. And then get the hell outta Cedar Rapids. And I should probably go clean up Joey's puke, too.
B-Sides: Other Stories I'm Following This Week.
Catholic League objects to Britney's religious-themed photographs, Madonna objects to Britney not even trying anymore (see "Britney Spears Slammed By Catholic League For Blackout's Religious-Themed Photos").
Skill set required to survive zombie attack remarkable similar to skill set required to survive Easter Bunny mauling, since, in both cases, your assailant would be completely f--king fictional (see "How Do You Survive A Zombie Attack? Scary-Movie Vets Roth, Tarantino, Raimi Give Advice").
This is what I was doing in Iowa when I wasn't listening to Ween's La Cucaracha (see "Barack Obama Gets Thumbs-Up From Iowa Students After MTV/MySpace Chat: 'He Did A Great Job' ").
Questions? Concerns? Boognish? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.