Parts Is Parts
Ween's Whacked-Out, Disjointed Quebec

The fall music lineup keeps filling out nicely. For those of you tired of the endless parade of summer sludge at the multiplex and in the music store, here’s some stuff to look forward to:

Next week Bela Fleck and the Flecktones hit with a three-disc set called Little Worlds. Following that is a six-disc live box set from Todd Rundgren called Can’t Stop Running, which collects his high-priced and hard-to-find import records from the past decade. Plus, new Sloan, but I’ve mentioned that, and it’s only available in Canada at the moment.

On August 26 we have Warren Zevon’s final album, The Wind, and early reports are calling it a typically unsentimental goodbye. Zevon, if you didn’t know, was diagnosed with terminal, inoperable lung cancer last year, and he’s been working on a farewell disc ever since. Should be fascinating and heartbreaking – it’s not often that an artist gets to consciously sculpt a final record. Speaking of finality, as well, Jeff Buckley’s incredible concert document Live at Sin-E gets the deluxe two-disc rerelease treatment on September 2, next to new albums by the Innocence Mission and Beth Orton.

September, in fact, looks like the biggest potential drain on the ol’ wallet in recent memory, with new discs from Seal, John Mayer, Elbow, a double record from OutKast, A Perfect Circle, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, the reunited Living Colour, the new Cerberus Shoal, Dave Matthews, Rufus Wainwright, South, the Mavericks, a double-disc concept piece from Neal Morse, Lyle Lovett, Randy Newman and Sting. Oh, and a three-CD live record from Rush, finally breaking with their four-studio-albums-and-a-live-set tradition.

Ah, who needs to eat, right?

* * * * *

I’m not sure how I became a Ween fan.

They’re not the kind of band to which I traditionally gravitate. In fact, I’d be surprised if anyone can succinctly describe the kind of band they are, which sort of negates the idea of personal categorical taste. Ween does so many different things at such varying degrees of success that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to compare them whole cloth to anyone else. The giant record company machine couldn’t come up with Ween if they tried, but considering the duo’s output so far, they probably wouldn’t want to.

I’d be interested to hear how other people became Ween fans, because this band demands a huge listening range, both musically and emotionally. Hearing the average Ween album (if there is such a beast) back to front is like listening to a mix CD put together by a retarded four-year-old with the best record collection in the world. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to any of it – every few years, Dean and Gene Ween emerge carrying a bunch of songs they wrote, none of which have any connection to each other and all of which can be listened to in any order. Huge stretches of Ween albums, it seems, are designed specifically to provoke the “what the fuck?!?” reflex.

I’m pretty sure I started buying Ween albums partially because I harbored disbelief that a band like this could not only exist, but exist on a major label. Ween started off as a novelty band, and I mean four-track, feedback and drum machines, frat-boy humor novelty band. Like the Beastie Boys, they sucked and they knew it, and they had endless fun with it. But then something strange happened – Ween started to get really, really good. By the time their second Elektra record, Chocolate and Cheese, came out, they were doing seven-minute Spanish cowboy songs and setting them next to danceably sick numbers like “Spinal Meningitis Got Me Down” and “Mister Could You Please Help My Pony.”

They only went up from there. They hired a slew of classic Nashville’s best for 12 Golden Country Greats, a superb mockery that hilariously contained only 10 tunes. They incorporated traditional folk elements and synth-heavy progressive rock on The Mollusk and juxtaposed it with yee-hah shitkickers like “Waving My Dick In the Wind.” They slammed Jimmy Buffett and Steely Dan on White Pepper with equal aplomb, and simultaneously managed their most Beatles-inspired and progressive record yet. It’s no exaggeration to say that Ween is perhaps the only contemporary band that still retains the consistent ability to surprise, album to album and track to track.

And now here’s Quebec, the first Ween album in three years and their debut on Sanctuary Records after a decade on Elektra. Dean and Gene promised a return to the “browner” side of their work with this one, and in a way, they’ve delivered – Quebec is the loosest Ween album in some time. These 15 songs don’t relate to each other in any way, and even the title is disassociated – the album was recorded in New Jersey, and none of the lyrics mention Quebec, or even Canada. But you can’t worry about that if you’re going to enjoy it, and this album is nothing if not enjoyable. Even if you’re in love with album-length through lines and themes, as I am, this one will win you over to its warped, fractured worldview.

Seriously, how many bands open an album sounding just like Motorhead (“It’s Gonna Be a Long Night”) and close it sounding just like Styx (“If You Could Save Yourself You’d Save Us All”)? In between we get spacey drones (“Among His Tribe” and “Captain”), 1920s swing (“Hey There Fancypants”), electronic children’s music (“So Many People in the Neighborhood”), progressive balladry (“The Argus”) and radio-ready guitar rock (“Transdermal Celebration,” which would be a hit if not for those pesky lyrics). Just the soaring guitar solo in that last one is worth the price of the album, by the way.

Quebec leaps styles so nimbly and skewers music in general so savagely that the moments of beauty seem like the strangest bits, but they’re there. Most notable is “I Don’t Want It,” a genuine, sad love song that appears irony-free. Of course, it’s sandwiched between novelty ditty “Chocolate Town” and repetitive annoyance “The Fucked Jam,” which only makes its sentimentality stand out more. That’s not the only moving one, though – “Tried and True,” “Alcan Road,” “The Argus” and “If You Could Save Yourself” play it straight more often than not.

The problem with Quebec is the same problem that’s plagued Ween all along, and in fact it’s apparent that Gene and Dean don’t consider it a problem at all. The pair are so diverse, so tongue-in-cheek that every one of their albums impresses without making any real impact. I’m taken with sections of Quebec, just like I’ve been each time out, but as a whole there are just too many hurdles to jump. Songs like “Zoloft” and the half-menacing, half-sing-song “Happy Colored Marbles” are fun, but don’t stand up to repeat listens. What’s troubling is that Quebec is so disjoined and plays so much like a loose collection of singles that I don’t mind skipping tracks. And perhaps that’s the intention, and I’m just being anal about it.

Yeah. Fuck it. Quebec is a hell of a lot of fun, a bumpy yet thrilling ride, which mixes throwaway crap and well-crafted bliss in nearly equal amounts. If you’ve ever wondered what kind of mix tape Sybil would make, pick up just about any Ween album. The only other bands like them are Ween tribute acts. Even if Quebec weren’t any good, it would still be one of 2003’s notable releases, because you won’t hear another album even sort of like it this year. Thank the Boognish.

* * * * *

The kind folks at North East Indie were good enough to send me the new Cerberus Shoal album, Chaiming the Knobblessone, well in advance of its September 2 release date. Haven’t heard note one of this thing yet, but I hope to combine reviews of it and the new 6gig for a Portland-themed column next time. After that, another big one with thoughts on the new Prince album and a whole bunch more. But now, sleep time.

See you in line Tuesday morning.