>Boognish Double-Review: "White Pepper" and "Quebec" by Ween

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i’m running out of hilarious things to say here

Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese was one of the first records I ever reviewed on this blog (way back in 2006, to be exact – one of many old blog posts you should probably never read). Since that album was the first Ween album I ever heard, and since I reviewed it almost immediately after I first heard it, I obviously had none of the perspective on Ween that I now have. Considering that they’ve become one of my most beloved bands in the past few years, I figure a follow-up review is long overdue. Especially considering that Chocolate and Cheese, despite its greatness, is currently only my third or fourth favorite Ween album! If that.

Now, that’s taking nothing away from the quality of Chocolate and Cheese. It’s still wonderful. It’s just that Ween have recorded many, many excellent records, and it’s not easy to pick a favorite. For the time being, I would like to discuss two later-day Ween records that I have come to prefer over C&C – 2000’s White Pepper and 2003’s Quebec. Both are strong candidates for Sean Rose’s Favorite Ween Album.

Of course, they’re just candidates, you see. I can’t decide which would qualify as my “favorite” without getting a headache, so I’m not even going to bother. White Pepper comes pretty close as anything, though. After the brilliant nautical psychedelia of The Mollusk, Ween decided to take a crack at Beatles-esque pop, which resulted in their most accessible, joyous record to date. I mean, that’s not saying much with Ween – it’s still varied, unusual, and full of primo Ween musical parodies (Steely Dan jazz-pop on “Pandy Fackler,” a Motorhead throwaway with “Stroker Ace,” and a Jimmy Buffet thing called “Bananas And Blow”). But hot damn, how about what might be my favorite Ween song ever, “Even If You Don’t”? That’s pure McCartney piano-pop, sir, delivered with a perfect hook, a wonderfully enthused Gene vocal (masking classic twisted Ween lyrics: “Please don’t touch the phone book / my friends are getting pissed off”) and a lovely noodly Dean solo – all delivered with only a scant trace of irony. Could’ve been a hit, it could, in some other world. And how about “Stay Forever,” a lovely power pop ballad worthy of Badfinger? Or album closer “She’s Your Baby,” maybe the sweetest little song Ween could possibly write? None of this is a joke. None of it sounds like a joke, that is. Shit, were Ween ever really joking, anyway?

Besides those songs, Ween expand their psychedelic influences with “Exactly Where I’m At,” “Flutes of Chi,” “Back To Basom,” the hard-rockin’ “The Grobe” and the oddly Residents-like “Ice Castles.” And of course, there’s “Falling Out,” another irony-free screed against a former lover in the same vein as “Baby Bitch.” White Pepper is the least crazy, least “brown” album in Ween’s rich oeuvre – so what really shines through is Ween’s songwriting chops, which have always been top-notch. It’s pop music! GREAT pop music. Isn’t all the best pop music a little fucked up under the surface, anyway? A tradition Ween understands all too well.

Quebec was Ween’s purported return to their “brown” roots, claiming similarities to early-90s favorites GodWeenSatan and The Pod. But that’s only half true – a third true, really. Quebec is so much more than that. Abandoning most of White Pepper‘s pop sheen, Quebec‘s songs are more thoughtful – dare I say, meditative – than any other Ween record to date. Songs like the acoustic “Among His Tribe,” the muted psych-pop “Tried And True,” the dirgey “Captain” and the folk echoes of “The Argus” are surprisingly pretty, almost lulling. They remind me of The Mollusk‘s “Cold Blows The Wind” or even C&C‘s “Buenos Tardes Amigo,” only totally straight-faced. Of course, Quebec‘s atmospherics could easily be overshadowed by some of the more demented songs here, the aforementioned “brown” throwbacks that prove Ween, despite their newfound hi-fi production and polished songwriting skills, can be just as twisted as they used to be if they so choose. These songs are the demented synth-chant of “So Many People In The Neighborhood,” the hilariously unsettling ode to “Zoloft” (wait for the “I can’t explain what I’m feeling inside” line – one of my favorite Ween lines, just from its delivery alone), the absolutely delirious “Happy Colored Marbles” and the repetitively electronic “Fucked Jam.” “Brown” songs they certainly are – like any classic Ween track, they will make you feel dirty just by listening to them.

But those are only four songs – three, if you don’t count the instrumental “Fucked Jam.” Discounting those songs, and the aforementioned meditative psych-folk tracks, this might as well just be White Pepper Part 2. The record kicks off with the misleading “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night,” easily eclipsing “Stroker Ace” as Ween’s best Motorhead parody (sample lyrics: “Don’t call your doctor, call the police / You bring the razor blade, I’ll bring the speed”). Then there’s the gorgeous psychedelic pop of “Transdermal Celebration,” one of Ween’s best songs EVER; “Hey There Fancy-Pants,” easily the jokiest song on the record which wouldn’t be out of place on C&C; “Chocolate Town,” a sweet country-rock tune that may or may not be about pooing; and “I Don’t Want It,” which I swear is a dead ringer for the second side of Big Star’s #1 Record – “Give Me Another Chance” or “Try Again” come to mind. God, I have no idea if that’s what Ween was going for with that one. I could be completely wrong, I could.

Few Ween albums are structured like Quebec. While the first half jumps between varied Ween musical parodies and psych-pop-folk musings, the second half dips deep into the murk, turning Quebec into maybe the darkest Ween album ever. The record ends with “If You Could Save Yourself (You’d Save Us All),” another fine example of Ween reinterpreting the pomp of Wall-era Pink Floyd and making it something entirely their own. I am hard-pressed to call the song uplifting, although it is almost anthem-like in its sweep, something that can’t be said for many Ween songs. In the end, Quebec – like White Pepper – features Ween delivering more great, refreshingly unironic psychedelic rock, although taking it into much darker (some would say, more interesting) territory. Even the “jokey” songs here (except “Fancy Pants,” of course) have a layer of delirious conviction to them, starting off as novelties but breaking down into outright surrealistic fits by the end of their running time.

So White Pepper is almost-perfect pop; Quebec is thoughtful and ethereal. Both represent modern Ween at their absolute best – jokey and fun, but also surrealistically brilliant and unsettling. This trend continues – to a lesser extent – in 2007’s La Cucaracha, a record that I guess deserves another listen from me considering that I haven’t heard it since it came out. But White Pepper and Quebec, especially in the wake of The Mollusk, continue Ween’s winning streak and creativity well into the 20th century. I’ll admit that I listen to Pepper more than Quebec – or any other Ween album, for that matter – but Quebec sounds better and better to me with each listen. Which might be why I have more to say about it.

That’s all. Listen to Ween. Feel the sheen of the best Ween.

(From now on I am ending every review with a fun rhyming couplet, I hope you enjoy my hilarious wordplay)

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>Album Review: "Fresh Raspberries" by the Raspberries

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you can’t resist them. you can’t

So I think I screwed the pooch with last week’s Big Star writeup, guys. I had a lot of things I wanted to say – a whole cache of killer lines pent up in my head – that just did not come out in the heat of the moment. I choked, I did! I had this whole bit about how Big Star opened up an alternate pop music universe to me as a teenager, how they introduced me to all this other great underground rock music. Because Big Star seriously meant a lot to me, you know? They deserved some extensive words.

But no, no. I rushed the entry and ran off to a cabin in New Hampshire. And I barely even described what their music sounded like! Yeesh!!

My sweet Alex Chilton, I am sorry. I will make this up to you by writing an entry about a band that is in no way related to you whatsoever.

Let’s talk about the Raspberries. In the early 70’s, the Raspberries succeeded where Big Star did not: they wrote 3-minute guitar-driven pop singles and were very very popular for it. This was not due to a lack of accessibility or talent on Big Star’s part; as I mentioned in the last entry, #1 Record probably would have been a big hit if Ardent/Stax had actually bothered to market the thing (and indeed, several songs off that record sound remarkably Raspberries-ish in retrospect – “Don’t Lie To Me” and “Feel,” most notably). But that does not change the fact that the Raspberries were much more marketable and mainstream than Big Star ever could have been; where Big Star was mostly introverted and contemplative, the Raspberries were blustery and melodramatic, a fusion of classic 50’s/60’s pop romanticism and ear-splitting hard rock that was perfectly tailored to the early 70’s listening public. With Wally Bryson’s simple, epic riffs and Eric Carmen’s heartthrob of a voice, Raspberries singles like “Go All The Way” and “I Wanna Be With You” were simply overwhelming celebrations of teenage lust and hard-rockin’ good times, the kind of songs Big Star just were not able to write.

And I mean, for God’s sakes, they wrote matching tuxedo shirts and bouffant hairdos. How could any hot-blooded 70’s record-buyer resist? (They could not.)

I have considered myself a Raspberries fan for a long time now. This is despite the fact that, before I picked up Fresh Raspberries on vinyl only a few months ago, I had never heard an entire Raspberries album. I only knew four of their singles, and hot-damn they were so good I almost felt like I didn’t need to hear a whole LP’s worth. Because, you know, what if it somehow was awful and ruined that picture-perfect Raspberries mystique I was basking in? But of course, having heard Fresh, I now know that my fears were totally unwarranted. This is a fun, consistent, and – to my pleasant surprise – diverse 70’s pop/rock album, probably among the best of its genre. I honestly expected the record to be completely dominated by lead singer/songwriter Eric Carmen – I mean, the guy is a force of nature, how could it NOT be? – but this was not the case. While he does have a lion’s share of the songs here, there are not one but two – two – other vocalists/songwriters featured, bassist Dave Smalley and guitarist Wally Bryson. Dave, with three songs, has a pleasant Roger McGuinn-like croon, which suits him nicely on the well-crafted Byrds tribute “It Seemed So Easy” and the country-rockish “Goin’ Nowhere Tonight.” Wally only has one song, the cute acoustic-driven “Might As Well” that brings to mind the Beatles’ folksier efforts (there’s a little “I’ve Just Seen A Face” in there). Both are solid songwriters and sound like perfectly nice guys, and having their songs placed in-between Carmen’s King-sized rockers was a wise move on the Raspberries’ part.

That’s not taking anything away from Eric Carmen, of course. The man was a God on Earth, after all. As a vocalist, he perfectly encapsulated everything that worked about the Raspberries; on a moment’s notice – often in the span of a single song – he could effortlessly switch between a sweet romantic croon and a mammoth hard-rock roar that could match any other rock frontman of his era. He also had a perfect flair for dramatics, filling Fresh songs like “I Reach For The Light” and “If You Change Your Mind” with iron-throated yelps and screams that flat-out force the listener to feel every iota of his pain. Unlike the quavery-voiced Alex Chilton, Carmen comes off as something of a power-pop superhero, turning simple odes to teenage love into the most epic of anthems – basically, he’s Paul McCartney on steroids. He himself is one of the main reasons the Raspberries were so popular, so it makes perfect sense that he would move on to a successful solo career only a few years later.

Did I mention that Eric Carmen is a Golden God? Yes I think I did. But it deserves several mentions.

The best songs on Fresh are probably the singles – the nigh-perfect (I have used that word a lot here, haven’t I) pop song “I Wanna Be With You” and the ballad “Let’s Pretend.” But the rest is practically as good. My only real problem with the Raspberries was their slight penchant for pandering nostalgia; they were popular in the nostalgia-hungry early 70’s, after all, so why not write a blatant Beach Boys homage with “Drivin’ Around”? I like the song fine, but it feels a little calculated. Unlike Big Star, the Raspberries don’t quite ascend their weighty influences – they don’t have the sheer soul and individuality, I guess – but they at least do good by them. There is no denying that they were a great rock ‘n roll band, and probably the most epic “pop” band of their time.

Perhaps I have been comparing the Raspberries to Big Star a few too many times in this review. This is probably because there is so much I forgot to say about Big Star before – a lot of stray thoughts, if you will. They are two very different bands, but they are both great at what they did – straight-up pop-rock that makes you feel good. What makes the Raspberries so special, of course, is the sheer confidence they exhibit, the way they demand your attention. They simply cannot be denied. Do not resist them.

Do not resist the sweet taste of the Raspberries.

(P.S: Be sure to check out Adam Spektor’s complementary review of the Raspberries’ first record that I know you will enjoy. As we are both experiencing a simultaneous rush of Rasperrymania right now, we decided to put out our Raspberries reviews at the same time. Wow what fun!!)

>Comic Update: Rockin Rick #1-6

>So a year ago I drew a silly one-off comic for my campus newspaper featuring a character called “Rockin’ Rick.” I liked Rockin’ Rick, so I used him in many many more comics despite all good logic. Eventually my good friend Stephen Winchell, a human being who can actually draw things that do not look horrible, decided to draw a few himself. Eventually Steve and I collaborated on a whole lot more Rockin’ Ricks, and kept the strip going twice a week for a semester.

Rockin’ Rick is special to me because it is the first comic I ever made that somebody liked. Still, a lot of other people (i.e. people that did not know and pity me) didn’t. Rockin’ Rick, in its early days, was a straight-up gag comic with one joke. If you didn’t like the joke the first time, you were not going to enjoy it repeated twenty-plus times. Daily Campus comics readers learned this the hard way.

Still, Mr. Winchell and I would like to keep Rockin’ Rick going in some way during our post-grad lives. So Steve, in all his loving generosity, decided to redraw the first six Rick strips I ever made. You will quickly notice that the art is very nice but the writing is very very wordy and clunky. That is just how I was a year and a half ago. That is how I still am. I am sorry.

Anyway, enjoy. Or hate. If you like them, maybe Steve will redraw more of them? (Note: he will anyway, no matter what you think)






>A Few Words On Big Star

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Chill, chill dudes

I discovered Big Star when I was 18 years old, about a week before I started my freshmen year of college. It was during what was possibly the most awkward transitional period of my life – leaving home for the first time, saying goodbye to high school friends, trying to tie up as many loose ends as I could before the summer ended and I left town for good. For me, it wasn’t just the usual nerves that inevitably accompany going to a new school; always a dramatist, I honestly felt that after the summer of 2005 ended, my entire life would irrevocably change, and coming back home would never be the same again. And so it was in this state – lying in my basement room with half of my belongings scattered around me, awkwardly stuffed into suitcases and boxes – that I listened to #1 Record for the first time. And of course, the timing was perfect.

I don’t remember how I first heard about Big Star – most likely, it stemmed from hearing the Flaming Lips’ LateNightTales compilation, which includes a Chris Bell track. All I know is that, upon hearing them for the first time, I felt like I had hit the motherlode – the crown jewel of cult rock bands, America’s greatest lost pop stars, the first alternative-pop band, whatever hyperbole you could heap upon them. Up until that point, I would mostly buy records my more knowledgeable friends recommended to me; rarely would I take it upon myself to find my own music and recommend it to them. So my discovery of Big Star was, at the time, a moment of irrepressible excitement. After reading Allmusic.com’s claim that the band were second only to the Velvet Underground in terms of revered American cult bands, I managed to find their two-fer CD with #1 Record and Radio City tucked away in my local Best Buy’s CD rack without a label – as if it were some kind of hidden treasure. And upon actually hearing the music at hand, I realized the hype was justified – and thensome. It baffled me that such beautiful, accessible pop music could be created by a band that nobody had ever heard of.

And I mean nobody. Nobody. Even the Velvet Underground had a place in the public consciousness, what with Lou Reed’s solo success and whatnot. But even my friends, well-versed in the world of indie rock, had never heard anything about Big Star – and indeed, many people I have met since display similar confusion whenever I mention them in conversation. Maybe the reason Big Star remain such a well-kept secret in pop music is that, unlike most cult rock bands, they should have been famous. Compared to the Velvet Underground, whose avant-garde leanings guaranteed them zero mainstream success, Big Star’s #1 Record sounds like a ready-made hit – loud hard rock guitars, bright vocal harmonies, and even a healthy dose of acoustic sensitivity. Some claim that, in 1972, people just didn’t want to hear the sweet power-pop Big Star were performing, but I just don’t see it. What about the Raspberries? Or Badfinger? In that vein, could #1 Record songs like “When My Baby’s Beside Me” or “Don’t Lie To Me” NOT be huge radio-hits? The only thing to blame for Big Star’s lack of success was lousy distribution from an uncaring record label. As such, they are maybe America’s only cult rock band that never should have been one in the first place.

It’s a chicken-or-the-egg sort of thing. Once the nigh-perfect #1 Record didn’t even chart, folk-rocker Chris Bell left the band and Alex Chilton further subverted the Big Star formula with Radio City and Third, two albums of utter sadness and confusion intermixed with power-pop wonder. Big Star were never a band that wanted to be a cult band; it was, unfortunately, foisted upon them. For me, this is why if I were to recommend any one Big Star record, it would have to be #1 Record; unlike the albums that would proceed it, it is an unhinged burst of enthusiasm coming from a band who probably felt they could take on the world. But even on #1 Record, Side 2 offers up mostly lovely acoustic ballads, a palpable tinge of melancholy already seeping into their sound.

#1 Record and Radio City are being re-released sometime soon, both on CD and on vinyl; not to mention that a giant four-disc Big Star boxset is underway, consisting of everything the band ever recorded from ’68-’75. I can’t tell you why there is such a sudden outburst of new Big Star releases this year – what I can tell you is that, most likely, I am going to seek out #1 Record on vinyl. Four years ago, the sheer beauty of Big Star’s music gave me hope in the midst of horrible uncertainty – and that’s still something I need.

(Fun bonus: A music video for “Thank You Friends,” pieced together using lost studio footage of the band. This was especially exciting for me to see – Big Star barely performed in their brief lifespan, and certainly never filmed any promotional vidoes. As such, they have always felt aloof, almost invisible. Just seeing them, even in unexciting candid moments, is really wonderful.)