I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
It would be remiss of me to begin this review without pointing you elsewhere on Critical Masses – Chris just completed his review of their entire discography. I’ll link you to the wrap, but you should go back and check out the full project. It’s worth the peek at such a fascinating band.
The songs on All Request Live were chosen by the fans – they posted their suggestions to the band’s message board, and Ween in turn played this set as a kind of thank you to their supporters. So that’s what this is – a straight live set of requests, played in the studio, and recorded straight to the soundboard. Superb sound quality. One of Ween’s greatest characteristics, and one that’s obvious on this record, is their absolute joy of playing music. Even from the beginning of their career when they recorded insane off-the-cuff ditties to 4-track and performed as a duo with nothing but DAT-machine backing, you could tell they were in it for the fun of it. They don’t take themselves seriously at all, and the fact that you can listen to their records and snicker along to their juvenile inside jokes and genre piss takes, a rare extension of inclusiveness between musician and audience, is a giddy treat. Fake brothers Dean and Gene Ween (Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman in real life) always seem to be smiling in their promo photographs also – there’s no rock ’n’ roll posturing to be found. And throughout All Request Live, that joy of performance is on full display, even though there’s no crowd off whose energy they could play.
It’s really selling Ween short, though, to minimize their discography as a series of running inside jokes. We’re not talking comedy here; we’re talking real, honest-to-goodness rock music, infused with humor and levity. What’s always surprised me, and it’s a discovery I made after seeing them live a couple of times between the release of The Mollusk and White Pepper, is that the band can shred – the music chops are beyond anything I would have expected. Especially after watching Dean in the “Push th’ Little Daisies” video, in which he slaps uselessly at a bass with both hands while hopping around like an idiot chimp. But this rock axe slingin’ is the real deal, and the rest of the band the boys have put together is equally capable. And it must be said that the genre-hopping that Ween is capable of – funk, rock, soul, latin, psychedelic, R&B, prog, adult contempo, yacht rock, folk, noise – clearly establishes Dean and Gene as true students of music, pushing their interpretations and style exercises past parody and into the realm of reverence. Consequently, after ingesting all the different types of music they love, Ween has regurgitated a mutant variety of it all as their own singular sound – a weird amalgamation you can’t put your finger on, but upon hearing you immediately think, “Oh, that sounds like Ween.” They’re true sound innovators. So take these lyrical inside jokes and put-ons, cloak them in great songwriting and musicianship, greatly vary the sound from release to release and even song to song, and you’ve got a singular act, one like no other. Oh right, forgot to mention – their vocals are often (but not always) pitch-shifted, allowing them to create complete and unique personalities in almost every song, freeing Dean and Gene to let their imaginations wander in the strangest pastures they can conjure.
That Ween can pull off the variety of requests they do here from such a deep and varied catalog is an impressive feat. (They do this often live, too: they’ll play a revue of their catalog even if they’re touring for a particular record.) The whole point of the exercise is to sate the rabid fanbase by giving them a voice in choosing the tracklist. And the fans do a great job, preferring older and rarer material to later album cuts. No less than six tracks featured here come from 1991’s The Pod, with “Awesome Sound,” “Mononucleosis,” and “The Stallion, Part 1” and “Part 2” standing out. (In fact, they do the entire 5-part “Stallion” saga, with Pure Guava’s “Part 3,” and the unreleased “Part 4” and “Part 5” rounding out the ridiculous cycle. The first is vulgar boasting, and the suite gradually morphs into stock prog lyricism. All I gotta say is: release “Part 4” and “Part 5.” Now.) “Pollo Asado,” also from The Pod, features Dean or Gene (can’t tell which) ordering Mexican food at a restaurant in a hilarious put-on Spanish accent while the band plays a mellow Hawaiian-style tune over top. There are three orders – and the joke is that it sounds like the same guy each time, even though the cashier says, “Next.” Also, the math in calculating change is a little iffy, which adds to the charm. “Reggaejunkiejew” from Pure Guava is reborn in this setting, with the pace quickened from the original and the addition of a full band infusing the original with life. It’s a treat in its revved-up form.
Gene displays the manic enthusiasm of a dimwitted 8-year-old throughout, reminding us on more than one occasion who wrote the songs (“This is ‘Happy Colored Marbles! By Ween.”) and referring to being “live on the infernet.” He giggles on several occasions with the rest of the band, and even though the conversations are one-sided (not everybody has the fortune of a microphone), you can tell they’re having a blast. It’s a wonder that they try to do a couple of serious (and chronologically later) songs, but most of the time they sabotage them somehow. “Tried and True” (“That was ‘Tried and True.’ By Ween!”) and “Stay Forever” are straight from the Michael McDonald / Hall & Oates playbooks, and Ween plays them ultra straight, which is part of the gag. The only Mollusk track, “Cold Blows the Wind” (which is about the death and mourning of a loved one), is introduced in a put-on voice as “This is a song about a dead bitch.” Never ones for subtlety.
The record ends with a surprise, a high note, and seeing as the whole exercise was a request show, they couldn’t not play “Where’d the Cheese Go?” if prompted, right? A little background on the song: “In 2002, the advertising agency for Pizza Hut approached [Ween] to record a promotional jingle, which resulted in a 30-second recording of ‘Where’d the Cheese Go?’ It epitomized Ween-style irreverence but did not appeal to the agency, and Pizza Hut rejected several versions of the song outright. True to form (and somewhat indignant), Ween re-recorded the same song with new lyrics as ‘Where’d the Motherfuckin’ Cheese Go At?’” What makes this a treat on record is that the band doesn’t play the song live, and they don’t even like talking about it. So if that’s not enough to whet the appetite for mayhem, know that those thirty seconds are stretched here to almost six minutes, with the main speaker (there’s no real singing) sounding like Ken Foree’s Charlie Altamont character in The Devil’s Rejects. Faux backwoods pimp mysogyny reigns as he pines for literal cheese, because he’s hungry. His girl calls, and she offers to get him some Papa John’s. (Nice.) He continues to pine for cheese until she calls back and informs him that it’s too late, Papa John’s is closed. Incredulously and blindly angry, he exclaims “Bitch… What the fuck?!” in hilarious indignation. The song winds down, and other members of the band start yelling cheeses at him. “Bleu cheese!” He replies, groaning, “Bleu cheese?! Ohhh maaaan…” “Muenster cheese!” He’ll get his cheese tomorrow.
I texted Chris, after listening to this album the first time, “all request live is SO DOPE.” Everything sounds good – the instruments are recorded well, the vocals are treated in all kinds of crazy manners and come off perfectly, and the energy and spirits are high. (Or they’re high on spirits and “energy.” Either way, I wouldn’t be surprised.) And great renditions of oft-overlooked songs add to the mystique of the Ween discography. If you are a fan, you cannot go wrong here.
RIYL: Ween is Ween. All hail Boognish.