As a fan of movies and music, I am interested in examining the output of directors and musical artists chronologically, observing how their work changed and developed over time. In this column, I proceed album by album and film by film until I’ve covered the gross yield of that musician/band or director. Often, I select artists with which I am only somewhat familiar, if at all.
Film – Coming soon
Music – Ween
(1991, Shimmy Disc; 1995, Elektra; 2010, Rounder)
The Pod, like GodWeenSatan before it, features an awful lot of tracks. Twenty-three to be exact, with the expanded version of their debut having twenty-nine. In both cases, a lot to digest. In hindsight, I may not have given myself enough time with GodWeenSatan, as I have noticed the benefits of taking my time with The Pod, a shorter, but more surreal and insular album than their debut. The Pod, according to the liner notes, was recorded to four-track between January and October of 1990. Furthermore: “In the time that this album was completed, we filled up 3,600 hours of tape, and inhaled 5 cans of Scotchguard.” While Ween later claimed the latter statistic was made up, it says something about the sound of the album that, when it comes to claims of chemical inspiration, most people over the years seem to have taken them at their word. The Pod is dense and unusual. Humor is still present here, but the frivolity has taken a turn toward the bizarre and there is an undercurrent throughout the album of something dark and maybe even a little bit menacing. At first, it can be a little tough to access the odd environs of The Pod, but with a little investment of time, the album offers a unique terrain to explore.
Given that we often see an album cover before hearing its sounds, The Pod distinguishes itself first by being unusually similar: the cover is an adaption of that belonging to the 1975 compilation The Best of Leonard Cohen. Over Cohen’s head, Ween pasted that of Mean Ween (a friend of the band and bassist on “Alone”) wearing what the liner notes claim is a “Scotchguard bong” (the Wikipedia page for The Pod explains that this is a device that sends THC directly to the brain, but the statement is not cited). Apart from this alteration, the only other changes made were to the artist, album title and song list text. What might have been only a simple prank resulted in an image that is appropriate for the album and even as a visual representation of Ween’s aesthetic overall. Upon initial viewing, the simple collage that serves as the cover of The Pod will cause in most viewers first a sense of recognition and will then jar them with the unfamiliar. Consider the pastiche that Ween songs often consist of: appropriations of familiar musical styles and motifs married with unusual, experimental sounds along with humorous and often strange, surreal lyrics. The cover of The Pod is the visual equivalent of this combination.
Take the album opener, “Strap On That Jimmy Pac.” Over music that recalls the blues and other American folk music, words are slurred that elude attempts to make sense of them. While phrases emerge that suggest subject matter in-line with the style of music, just as many, if not more, are sung that suggest the opposite. This disorienting quality is the one constant throughout the album. Otherwise, Ween jump all over the musical map stylistically. This is made clear from the start when “Strap On That Jimmy Pac” transitions into “Dr. Rock,” a psychedelic rocker garnished with the lo-fi touches of mid-line laughter, off-mic coughing and hints of conversation beneath the instrumental parts. However, sometimes the Boognish inspires Dean and Gene to stray from the history of rock into strangeness to which only demon-gods could provide the directions. “Frank,” while featuring an earthly sounding guitar-riff, has verses that, lyrically and sonically, sound inspired by foreign chemicals if not foreign beings. These three songs which open The Pod, while not the best the album has to offer, present a pretty clear picture of what to expect from the other twenty tracks.
“Right to the Ways and the Rules of the World” may be one of the best examples of the disorienting quality described above. For two-thirds of the song, Ween plays the 60s acid rock straight and rather convincing. The imitation breaks down when the vocalist strains his voice and then bursts into laughter at himself. Taken out of context, it is easy to imagine the listener caught off guard when this transition occurs. Of course, it only works because Ween pulls it off musically. Their musicianship is one of the elements that prevent Ween from being simply a joke band. Another is that the “jokes,” when present, are so unique to their personalities, and thus usually so strange, that one is left with the feeling of having encountered something unusual rather than having been treated to a succession of Yankovic one-liners. “Molly,” for example, with its skewered vocals and rapid repetitions of the titular woman’s name would not strike many people as sober and serious in tone, but one is left feeling somewhat outside the joke, even if one can smile at the bizarreness. Another example of this is “Pollo Asado,” a succession of Mexican food orders; it might cause one to chuckle, but the humor is far from traditional and relies more on the oddity of these transactions being spoken over music. While GodWeenSatan featured its share of dick and fart jokes, The Pod relies much less on such universal prompts for laughter.
The uniqueness of The Pod results in an album that may not be easily accessible or digestible in one listen, but is rewarding the more time you spend with it. As diverse as the twenty-three tracks are, there is still a pervasive aesthetic that ties them together. In that sense, Ween created an album: a grouping of songs with a unique collective identity that can be distinguished from that of other albums in their catalog. That’s saying a lot considering the miles of musical landscape between “Can U Taste The Waste?” and “Oh My Dear (Falling In Love).” Without returning to GodWeenSatan, I’d say that The Pod is more successful in this manner than their debut. While it isn’t cohesive stylistically, it glues itself together with other adhesives, some atypical for the standard rock album. While perhaps not atypical, one of these elements is personality and Ween has that like ugly girls. Later albums will find Ween more focused, but The Pod may be the best example of the boys at their most frenetic. “Got an awesome sound, goin’ down.”