I don’t even know where to begin, really. I hope you’re all familiar with Ween – we did a freaking buttload of reviews of their material, under the auspices of both The Gross Yields and Crate-Digging. (Start here.) This marks the solo debut of Aaron Freeman, aka Gene Ween, the Gener who Deaner found cryin’ in his sleep all those years ago. In true Ween fashion, it’s an out-of-the-blue curveball, for you metaphor mixers, and a genre exercise to boot. It’s also an all-covers album. Strictly of songs written and performed by 1960s/1970s lite-rock/folk crooner Rod McKuen. I hadn’t heard of him either.
So where do I begin? Gene and Dean have gone down the ol’ rabbit hole and come back up for air countless times, and as such it’s hard to pin down who the joke’s on anymore. If there even is a joke. And I’m not sure there is. The thing about Ween and their sense of humor is, they’re such affable blokes that they pretty much let everybody in on it all the time, and give it their all when they do. Their albums are masterpieces of genre deconstruction, from the soul glo of Chocolate and Cheese to the obvious sendup of country-western in 12 Golden Country Greats, which in turn was followed by my personal favorite, the prog imagining of The Mollusk. You all knew exactly what they were doing, and the compositions were so true to form and wonderfully (and mostly straightly) executed that there wasn’t much room for haters on the outside. The boys, with perpetual dopey grins, were always welcoming. And on top of all that, they’ve fostered an online torrent site so that fans can trade live and difficult-to-find recordings. (A personal favorite is All Request Live, on which the band is in top form.) Ween is for the people. Hail Boognish.
It stands to reason, then, that Marvelous Clouds (a Ween-ier title I couldn’t begin to conjure) would be more of the same, a chuckle-eliciting listen wherein you’d pick out the over-the-top references and subtle homages with equal ease. Sure, the fact that Freeman wrote none of the material here might be the first clue that we’re not in for the norm, but c’mon, you’re clownin’, Aaron, right? A record full of 1970s AM gold, played, for the most part, straight up, is not what we’re expecting. There has to be a joke in here, a wink, a nod, a clue to the irony of it. Is this 12 Golden Crooner Greats?
I took another listen to the record, then, and I realized that none of the questions mattered. No amount of trying to cram Marvelous Clouds into a well-defined niche in the Ween discography – a red herring of an activity if there ever was one – was going to cover up the fact that, on its own, the record was awesome. I don’t know why that is either, it just is. I’m still trying to understand the “why” of it. It’s not in my wheelhouse by any means – I don’t listen to James Taylor, probably the easiest stylistic reference, for pleasure or satire. I can’t stand James Taylor. Yet here I am hanging on Freeman’s every word.
Obviously context plays a huge part, and Freeman’s past is the easy entry point here, so I’ve got to forgive myself and remember that Ween’s the ticket in to this party. Also Leonard Nimoy. Can’t forget that. You may recall my review of the collection of his and William Shatner’s hits, but if you don’t, here’s a reminder. As infinitely entertaining as listening to that joke of an album was, I had to admit there were some serious chops behind Nimoy’s take on 1960s standards. (Not so much with Shatner.) What was a fish-out-of-water record, subject-wise, turned out to be a real highlight to Nimoy’s talents as a singer. Similarly Freeman, the same guy who concocted “L.M.L.Y.P.,” “Flies on My Dick,” and “Where’d the Cheese Go?,” among dozens of other brilliantly skewed or vulgar tunes, tackles the crooner genre with remarkable success, and the double take its bound to elicit is all part of the fun.
So whether or not there’s a parody here, or a parody of a parody, or a parody of a parody of a parody … (isn’t there some double negative law in play here?), the bizarre concept really does fit Freeman’s persona, as well as the Ween ethos, Boognish be damned. (OK, OK, I take it back! Thou shalt not take Boognish’s name in vain…) The soft rock template is rife with lyrical themes that, when taken out of context, could really pass for Ween lyrics. In fact, it took me a couple listens before I did some research and realized Freeman hadn’t actually written the songs, the connection was that close. Take for example the awesome (and they’re all awesome, who am I kidding) opening lines of opening track “As I Love My Own”: “Your smile as it widens on your face / is like a child running off across the hills / And I love your smile / as I love my own.” How appropriate is that? It’s not hard to imagine that lyric on White Pepper, or maybe The Mollusk.
The album is filled with themes of sunshine, rain, running up hills, running down hills, courtin’ on October Hill, pretty much any type of hill-related outdoor activity you can think of, perfect stoner material really, and that’s why it’s perfect for Freeman: it’s easy to see how an afternoon chronic sesh could be enhanced by Marvelous Clouds. Why wouldn’t you giggle like a moron when the chorus hook of “Doesn’t Anybody Know My Name,” complete with random train times, goes, “Please tell me if you can, what time do the trains roll in? / 2:10, 6:18, 10:44”? Or wonder why the title track, itself a perfect fit for The Mollusk, begins with an explosion and laser fire straight out of an old Sega Genesis game? It’s all so perfectly conspired, placed, and executed, and yet none of these songs were written by any member of Ween.
And in the end you may just have to wonder if Freeman’s simply starting to resonate more with this type of music as he gets older – he’s no longer a spring chicken at 42 (that ain’t old either, let me tell you), and the gray and the five-head betray the years behind his ever-present impish, childish grin. So it’s no surprise then that he finds himself tackling sentimental tracks like “Jean,” “A Man Alone,” and “Love’s Been Good to Me,” the latter of which finds him ruminating on past loves and how he’s been fulfilled relationally. And I think “Mr. Kelly” is about a dog. At any rate, it’s likely that Freeman feels a deeper connection to this kind of lyrical content, in a straight, serious way, than we might be led to believe, as we are ever-wary of the in-joke, Ween style. But look at me – I’ve written almost 1,200 words, and in the end I’m just going to say, enjoy it. Enjoy Aaron Freeman, enjoy Gener, enjoy the whole discography and don’t think too hard. Because in the end, it’s all good, and it’s a heck of a ride. Perhaps we’ll see some sort of Jimmy Buffett homage next time, hm?
RIYL: Ween, Rod McKuen, James Taylor, Leonard Nimoy, Burt Bacharach, Neil Sedaka
“LOVE’S BEEN GOOD TO ME”
“MARVELOUS CLOUDS (live)”
“DOESN’T ANYBODY KNOW MY NAME (performed by Rod McKuen)”