For the past 20 years, Ween has established itself as a major artistic force, combining off-the-wall musical antics with brilliantly creative songwriting. La Cucaracha, Ween's new studio record, is an eclectic, dark, humorous, and bizarre assortment of songs. In other words, it's a typical Ween record. These thirteen tracks, though strongly diverse, share a common theme: relationships. It's a theme that can be at once joyful, morbid, humorous, and often frightening. From the tenderly introspective "Lullaby" to the disturbingly offensive "My Own Bare Hands," Ween pulls no punches in its latest endeavor, which acheives its power through sharp wit, clever songwriting, and brutal honesty.
Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
In the initial round of promotion for 2007's La Cucaracha, Ween's first album for Rounder and first in four years, Dean Ween called it a "party record, unlike our last record (Quebec) which was more of a Jonestown type party vibe," which is about as accurate a self-criticism as an artist has ever given. Quebec left a hazy, narcotic aftertaste that the giddy La Cucaracha blows away as the band reverts back to all their signatures: they never stay in one place too long, they spike most songs with their impish humor, and every track shows their knack for savvy, sly, odd arrangements. In that sense, the record could almost be seen as a back-to-basics album, as it's pitched somewhere between the sonics of Pure Guava and the sensibility of Chocolate and Cheese, but that's misleading, as it suggests that Ween are self-consciously striving to recapture past glories. Nothing could be further from the truth. La Cucaracha is the sound of Ween cutting loose, reveling in the lower budget and expectations an indie label brings, and playing music that simply sounds good. And, make no mistake, this is a party record -- quite literally so, as it's bookended with the spangly, mariachi rock & roll instrumental "Fiesta" and the decadently suave "Your Party," two songs that explicitly celebrate parties. The latter features a divine cameo from David Sanborn, whose alto saxophone gives this lounge party precisely the right sense of velvet flair, and whose very presence signals just how far Ween have come as musicians since the heyday of The Pod and Pure Guava. Back then, they were wildly imaginative young punks, creating their own world on a four-track, but they continued to expand their horizons with each successive album for Elektra in the '90s, growing as writers and musicians with each LP.
With La Cucaracha, they return full circle, recording the album in a rented farmhouse in their hometown of New Hope, PA, and they seem re-energized by the smaller scale yet they don't abandon the frightening musical acumen they've garnered in the past 15 years. As such, the album is almost the best of both worlds: it has the devilish, off-kilter vibe of the earliest records but it's played with the skill of their latter-day albums, so this bounces from the elastic pop of "Blue Balloon" to the full-throated roar of "My Own Bare Hands," as punishing a rocker as they've ever cut. And while they never abandon genre-hopping -- "The Fruit Man" is this album's excursion into reggae, "Spirit Walker" and the ten-minute "Woman and Man" their prog rock numbers -- nothing feels like a deliberate parody. All the different musical strands feel fully absorbed, to the extent that when Gene Ween dips into Roger Miller nonsense on the chorus of the deliriously fun "Learnin' to Love," it doesn't seem like a send-up, it just feels like a natural move, an indication of how ferociously talented this duo is. At this point, 17 years after their debut, Ween may not surprise as often as they once did, but they've long ago transitioned away from relying on shock humor and have become one of the most consistently satisfying rock bands in America, and La Cucaracha captures them at a peak, which is surely reason enough to throw a party. After all, Ween have given you an ideal soundtrack for one with this album.
A fanbase as enduring and cultish as Ween's is hard to come by these days. Over the past 17 years, Ween have become the opposite of what today's indie rock fans seem to demand: They're a band prone to subverting genre familiarity, mocking self-seriousness, and singing songs about fun things like sex and drugs. Their followers have only increased with each release, coming to the band through their Twin/Tone debut God Ween Satan: The Oneness, "Push th' Little Daisies" on Beavis & Butthead, their receipt of the noted "Cute Band Alert" in Sassy Magazine, the Spike Jonze-directed Buzz Clip™ for "Freedom of '76", Phish covering "Roses are Free", their appearances on Crank Yankers and South Park, their notoriously badass live sets, "Ocean Man" in the Honda ad, that time they did "Even if You Don't" on Letterman, the still-hilarious Pizza Hut jingle debacle, and dozens of points in between. When put into perspective, Ween's career to date encompasses maybe every possible way for a band to gain notice that's emerged in the last 20 years. And to think that now all they'd need is a 96k mp3 on a Myspace page. Bah.
Ween might have built their following in a pre-MySpace age, but "Friends", from their ninth LP La Cucaracha, certainly seems like an ode to the simple, repetitive joy of clicking toward companionship. They don't stop with social networking: La Cucaracha is Ween's first album since they canceled a leg of their fall 2004 tour due to "health concerns," a turn of events resulting in the word "rehab" being bandied around. The band is rightfully protective of its privacy, but the overriding sentiment of the new album seems to be a New Age-y approach to getting in touch with one's "inner" self, and reconnecting with society at large.
Of course, this is Ween we're talking about, so there are songs like "Shamemaker", the result of a counseling session about confronting your enemies, and "Learnin' to Love", day-at-a-time life-management in the geeky hillbilly style that didn't quite gel on 1996's 12 Golden Country Greats. "Spirit Walker" is Ween-on-a-Pure Moods-compilation, with vocoder creating a pastel fog of spectral irony. It's a hilarious send-up, and one of the more successful tracks on the record. The piano-based "Lullaby" is among their sweetest songs, but its preternatural calmness and focus on "sleeping like a baby" feels like a childhood regression more than anything else.
There are a couple of moments on La Cucaracha that can stand up with some of the band's best work; it's too bad they're not more frequent. The album opens-- after the tossed-off "Fiesta"-- with "Blue Balloon", whose hazy, tweaked backdrop of drum machines, chiming guitars, and nasal synths sounds like a relapse into the Dristan cocktail decadence of their first three albums. "Woman and Man" is the best example of the duo's new fondness for breaking nature down to its core components: Starting as a primitivist Adam and Eve tale (complete with bongo and flute), the song erupts into a soaring excuse for interlocking guitar solos. Ween's ode to the dawn of the sexes is followed by a heartily tongue-in-cheek example of how far they've evolved. "Your Party" brilliantly parodies "yacht rock"'s smarmy, WASP-y decadence, its narrator speaking for "the wife" when thanking last night's host for "candy and spices, and tri-colored pastas." And yes, Ween scored the ultra-appropriate David Sanborn to lay down the syrupy sax line.
Because of its direct debt to recognizable forms, Ween's musical output has succeeded and failed largely based on the quality of the original material. The band's creative and commercial plateau-- from Chocolate & Cheese through The Mollusk and White Pepper-- showed that, when they chose wisely, they could interpret and trick out seemingly any musical form (even the dud 12 Golden Country Greats wasn't lacking for effort). But on La Cucaracha, possibly out of a debt to realism, the duo has mostly chosen material founded on notions of placidity (or, in the case of "Friends", erased much of the original color), purposefully disallowing their own music its previous vitality.
-Eric Harvey, October 22, 2007