Sunday, July 27, 2008
Ween-ing myself // Cossack's got me feelin' emo-tions
It's been a while since I was really all that into the common social practice known as "getting high and listening to music." Like most, I've participated in my share of it. I have fond memories of junior- and early-high-school hangs in a friend's bedroom, playing Mortal Kombat II and laughing hysterically at a variety of music, some intentionally funny, some not. I can't remember exactly what the playlists were back in those days--maybe there was some Type O Negative? some White Zombie?--but I know they included liberal doses of Ween's Pure Guava CD. One track, "The Stallion, Part 3," was rewound endlessly, especially the little monologue in the middle: "Hey dude, he's the stallion! / Yo dude, he's the stallion! / [and after a priceless little pause] Dude! He's the stallion." One friend of mine in particular was absolutely obsessed with this line and we'd play it over and over and its funniness only seemed to amplify with each spin.
Anyway, those were wonderful times. But I found that over the years, my relationship with the substance in question changed, deepened--maybe "soured" is the best word for it. I couldn't use it without slipping into morbid self-contemplation, an activity to which I'm already somewhat unhealthily disposed. The laughs didn't come as easily, and if they did, they were fleeting, just a prelude to darker emotions. So after a while, I pretty much set it aside altogether.
Seeing Ween at McCarren Pool last night dredged up a lot of thoughts of these adolescent activities and their more troubling adult counterparts, and not because I took in the show in any sort of enhanced state (just one Stella, in fact). What it really was, was that I realized that Ween's music serves as its own kind of marijuanal psychoactor, namely that in its staggering eclecticism, it runs you through the gamut of emotions described above. At various times during this show, I felt like laughing out loud; at others, the urge to cry was nearly overwhelming. I won't pretend that my general state of mind didn't have anything to do with this emotional rainbow, but Ween's music is no playtoy; it's intensely affecting stuff, ricocheting wildly from the ultradumb to the ultradepressive. (I tried to get to the bottom of that dichotomy in this Time Out piece from last year, which includes commentary from Aaron Freeman, a.k.a. Gene Ween.)
The band lets it all hang live. They are, simply put, schlubby-looking. Or at least Freeman is. His partner, Dean Ween (a.k.a. Mickey Melchiondo), has a sort of rugged, fratty handsomeness. Appropriately, his guitarwork--especially in the live setting--is among the wankiest I've ever heard; he can and will solo on any part of any song. Bassist Dave Dreiwitz has a sort of of Jheri curl/mullet. Keyboardist Glenn McClelland looks like a science teacher. Drummer Claude Coleman barely escapes nerd-dom. But Freeman balances him out: An exceedingly diminutive and ill-proportioned (i.e., top-heavy) guy, he takes full advantage of this awkwardness while moving around onstage--appearing most of the time like an asymmetrical cartoon.
If you're not familiar with the band beyond a few of their more above-ground hits, you might not know that with Phish now retired, Ween is maybe the closest thing America has to a Grateful Dead successor. (Think tape-trading, caravan-ing, setlist-posting, etc.) You'd probably encounter similarly swarmlike crowds at a lot of other McCarren Pool shows this summer, but only at this one would you hear a poolful of twenty- and thirtysomethings screaming the phrase "bananas and blow" at the top of their lungs. Ween goes everywhere with its music--from willfully stupid heavy metal to gloriously shaded psych-pop--and its audience remains rapt at all times. Early in the show, I heard a guy nearby invite the girl next to him to retreat to the back and smoke a joint during a song break. Her response was: "Okay, but I need to see what they're playing next. If it's something good, I've gotta stay and listen." Amen.
So back to what I was saying before... It's been a long time since I've *felt* this much at a concert: Grinning amusement ("Touch My Tooter"), cringe-ish discomfort ("The HIV Song"), righteous headbang-itude ("Dr. Rock," which couldn't have been heavier or more ballsy) and deep, weird malaise ("The Argus"). Ween's thing is this: Dabble, but dabble *hard*. Gimmick pieces like "You Fucked Up" become mantras in their hands; in place of the thousands of in-jokes that most of us have stockpiled by the time we reach adulthood, Ween simply has hundreds of outstandingly memorable (and often, really, really good) songs. (Maybe this diversity explains why Freeman feels compelled to announce to the audience, after every song, that said composition was, in fact, "by Ween.") I was previously familiar with about 90% of Friday's set and I couldn't help but marvel at the real estate Ween had laid claim to in my brain. When one thinks of ironclad back catalogs, one often thinks of someone like Neil Young, but Ween's rock is every bit as classic and maybe even more so for the latter-day hippies that worship the band.
The Grateful Dead reaches new stoners every day, but it also turns a lot of them off, simply because its version of psychedelia doesn't allow for the version that most of us experience in our early days of experimentation: namely the one that's all about video games, junk food, bad movies and yes, really goofy music. Ween took me to this realm on Friday quite a few times, but even without--to Laal's and my dismay--playing Baby Bitch (perhaps one of the most raw, harrowing songs every written; if you're ready, click the title to hear what I mean--it could almost be mistaken for Elliott Smith, though it might be too real even for him), they also took me several times to a place of deep, sublime bummerdom. Freeman seems to know this latter state well. I'll end with an excerpt from our conversation last year that didn't make it into the article linked to above:
HS: A song like “Baby Bitch” is really cutting to the bone.
GW: Yeah, if you knew me [Laughs]—it hasn’t been easy for Gene Ween, that’s for sure. I mean I write about my life; I write about what’s happening to me at the time. And I try not to make it too literal, you know, so that it doesn’t alienate everybody, but yeah, I would say the key word is “intimacy,” for all that. I keep it real, man. Just tryin’ to keep it fuckin’ real, and people respect that.
Indeed we do, Gene.
Here's the setlist [and yes, I was indeed thrilled to hear so much from my favorite Ween disc--and one of the greatest rock records I've ever heard--White Pepper]:
Exactly Where I'm At
Take Me Away
Transdermal Celebration [man, Dean really ripped on that super-poignant intro]
awesome jazzy McClelland keyboard solo-->Even if You Don't [one of the top-five all-time Ween jams for sure]
Learnin' to Live [a seemingly slight tune from La Cucaracha that has really grown on me since I first heard it. an extended and crazily committed riff on horse-racing slang.]
With My Own Bare Hands [containing the hands-down best lyric of 2007: "She's gonna be my cock professor, studyin' my dick / She's gonna get her master's degree in fuckin' me]
Marble Tulip Juicy Tree
Buckingham Green [SO epic, as always]
Your Party [SO smooth, even without David Sanborn]
The Stallion, Part 5--> Gene's hilarious ye-olde-style Stallion riff
Touch My Tooter
I'll Be Your Johnny on the Spot
The Mollusk [Gorgeous--the first great jam of Ween's deep-psych-pop phase?]
Booze Me Up and Get Me High [Yeah, I'm not so psyched on that country album...]
Waving My Dick in the Wind
Mr. Richard Smoker [woulda rather've heard the almighty "Pandy Fackler," but this ain't too bad]
[next was a song I can't identify: I think it contained the lyric "If you wish upon the moon"--help?]
Shamemaker [love that SoCal accent, as potent as it is on the record]
The HIV Song [I guess it's harmless fun, but you can't help but wonder if this has ever caused any really awkward moments for any of the band members]
Bananas and Blow [me and others were really getting down during this one, and rightfully so]
You Fucked Up-->psych jam [couldn't place the riff they were rocking on; I think it was from "Foxy Lady"]
And also: Cossack is a band from Los Angeles. STATS--then known as Stay FKD--played with them in Long Beach on tour last December (photo above is actually from that show: 12.9.07 at the Que Sera Bar). I loved them live, but had forgotten how moving their music was. Pulled out their EP recently and was re-floored in a major way. Their "Sounds like" field on MySpace reads: "Alternative rock you wish you listened to during high school." And their influences elucidate that somewhat: "Cap'n Jazz, Owls, Superchunk, Mock Orange, Don Caballero, Sonic Youth, The Van Pelt, Yo La Tengo, Braid, Magic the Gathering." Some of those bands I did listen to in high school; actually only one: Don Cab, and Cossack really sounds nothing like them. Cap'n Jazz I've only heard a little of (gotta love "Little League"), but enough to know that they do in fact sound a lot like Cossack or vice versa. But even though I didn't listen to Cap'n Jazz or--obviously, since they weren't a band then--Cossack in high school, I did become intimately familiar with the sort of breathless, postpubescent yet pre-adult indie-rock/emo that they purvey. It's the sort of rock music that manages to capture the travails and sweeping emotions of adolescence with a remarkable poetic distance and poise yet at the same time embody the sweaty tempestuousness of that time: It's both cerebral and gloriously physical. Hectic, passionately jangly guitars and urgently yelped vocals, often delivered overlappingly by more than one singer. Many folks I know loved at least one band of this sort in high school: I had two favorites in this hard-edged emo realm, Boys Life and Giant's Chair--both obviously KC hometowners, which seems somehow appropriate with music that feels so intimate and tied to a time and place--with generous helpings of Karate (and a little Vitreous Humor) thrown in. Cossack does an amazing job of taking me right back to that mid-'90s feelings-rock sweet spot. Listen to the song "disposable" here and you'll see what I mean... hopefully.