At Ween’s request, I have reconsidered David Sanborn. Reappraised the smooth-jazz titan’s impressively varied résumé (David Bowie, L.A. Law) and regarded anew his chosen aesthetic: a poppy, oil-slick, baby-making affability that evokes yachts, white zinfandel, and mullet-era Mel Gibson. Picture your father, half-emerged from the sunroof of a cherry-red Porsche puttering slowly past the Waverly Inn, his Italian silk tie blowing gracefully in the wind, his saxophone gleaming regally, soulfully blowing the chorus to “The Heat Is On” as women on the sidewalk coo and faint. That gets at it well enough.
In context, Sanborn can be surprisingly quite splendid. Even more surprisingly, the context that inspired this reappraisal is a Ween album.
“Your Party” is the final track and crowning jewel of La Cucaracha, the Pennsylvania-born duo’s ninth (!) proper studio album in a lewd and lustrous 17-year (?!!?) career built around deeply juvenile, patently ludicrous genre experiments—synth-pop goofs, pornographic sea shanties, heavy-metal anthems, an entire hat-country album with song titles like “Mr. Richard Smoker” and “Piss Up a Rope”—executed with shocking skill and dexterity. They are clowns, but Frank Zappa clowns, their dirty mouths writing outlandish checks their outlandishly talented asses can actually cash. Their schizophrenic records are like top-shelf surrealist sketch-comedy routines; their concerts are mind-blowing three-hour stadium-rock blowouts. (Request “Tender Situation.” Or “Dr. Rock.” Or “Puerto Rican Power.”)
Lately Ween’s vibe, or Ween’s audience’s vibe, or both, has taken on a dour jam-rock sheen. But Cucaracha is looser and goofier and more diabolical than they’ve sounded in years, and this resurgence peaks on “Your Party,” a swinging yacht-rock ballad about a swank upper-crust fete, the kind that features mountains of cocaine and a diamond-encrusted bowl of keys. “There were candy and spices and tricolored pastas,” coos Gene Ween (né Aaron Freeman), and lo, floating ethereally in the background, it’s David Sanborn, honking seductively away, his dulcet tones makeout-music incarnate.
Dean Ween (né Mickey Melchiondo), the guitar-shredder of the group, has since raved to Billboard that he loves David Sanborn, which has aroused suspicion, if not outright guffaws. A great many critics and even fans assume these guys are fucking around, just first-class irony peddlers. Mickey is tired of being thus misunderstood and misunderestimated.
“Our stuff is mostly autobiographical,” he says, calling in from his fishing spot on Long Beach Island. “People don’t get that at all. Not just some records—all of them. Aaron-—Gene Ween—has written a lot of beautiful love songs. Some of our best songs are some of his love songs. And it’s funny, for the first few records, to hear people say that we do spot-on parodies of love songs. We can’t write a fuckin’ love song? It has to be ‘making fun of a love song’? It can’t just be judged for what it is? How come we have
that tag stuck to us? Because we switch styles of music, we’re not afraid to play around?”
Consider “Baby Bitch,” from 1994’s beloved breakthrough Chocolate and Cheese. It’s a willowy, somber, acoustic kiss-off. Sample lyrics: “Baby baby baby bitch/I’m better now, please fuck off.” Dean thinks it gets a bad rap. “I remember what it was about—it’s about a breakup. I remember how hard it was on him, and how well he was able to articulate his pain or whatever in that song. I think that was the first time I can really remember reading that sort of thing about us, like, ‘Oh, it’s a parody of some kind of Bob Dylan breakup song.’ Like, what the fuck are you talkin’ about?”
The apex of this confusion is 1996’s 12 Country Greats, a 10-song straight-up honky-tonk record cut in Nashville with badass lifer sidemen whom the Ween boys clearly deified. Or maybe not so clearly. “People thought we were going to Nashville and making fun of these old guys by making this record, not realizing it was one of the most rewarding things we ever did,” Mickey says. “We’re huge fans of it, and grew up on country music. The records those guys have played on—we felt we were going on sacred ground.”
The notion that a band responsible for songs like “Put the Coke on My Dick” considers anything sacred ground is unfeasible, but if some of Cucaracha is excessively corny even by Ween’s standards—narcotized reggae romp “The Fruit Man,” the painstakingly vapid dance-pop jam “Friend”—it’s good to hear them thoroughly enjoying themselves again. Quebec, from 2003, isn’t entirely a downer—behold the Motörhead-aping opener “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night”—but it reflects a time in Ween’s lives so unpleasant that Mickey has actually never listened to it, and possibly never will. “A lot of personal real-life shit went down,” he says. “Aaron got divorced, and we were both way too fucked up, and it was no longer . . . fun.”
“Fun” is a relative construct, of course. In sharp contrast to Aaron’s love songs, Mickey admits: “When I’m really, really, really inspired to write is when I’m really fuckin’ pissed off.” Which brings us to
“With My Own Bare Hands,” a brief, violent, hard-rock Cucaracha track that features Mickey howling, “She’s gonna be my cock professor, studyin’ my dick/She’s gonna get her master’s degree in fuckin’ me.”
Mickey is happy to explain this song’s genesis. “When I met my wife, she was aspiring to be a teacher—we’ve been together 17 years, we’ve been married 11 years. She had just gotten out of college, and she had to get her teaching credentials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, then she went and got her master’s degree. And then I ended up having to pay off these student loans—and then, just about the time it was all said and done, we had a baby and she quit and, like, never worked again. Meanwhile, I’m paying off these student loans. I was really pissed off at her, so I wrote that song, and that’s where that verse comes from.
“I’ve written some pretty rotten songs about her that she’s dealt with,” he adds. “Sometimes when she comes to see us, she gets a little bit pissed off—at ‘Piss Up a Rope’ or whatever.”
It’s times like these you wonder: What’s stranger, that Ween are David Sanborn fans or that David Sanborn is a Ween fan? Mickey says that when they initially approached his management about “Your Party,” they got blown off—but suddenly, wait! It turns out Dave’s a big fan, and he’d love to! Can this possibly be true?
“I like the whole record,” Dave says, calling in from—a Porsche’s sunroof, maybe. “They’re just really good songs, and interesting production . . . and they’re funny. That shit is funny, man.”
As to the question of whether he is being spoofed or deeply honored here, Dave is nonchalant. Profanely so, which is appropriate. “Personally, it doesn’t really matter much to me,” he says. “If it’s a send-up, they certainly do it with conviction and musicianship. . . . They certainly do whatever they do well. Whether or not it’s a put-on kind of becomes irrelevant. Do you like the song or not? That, to me, is the larger point: Does it work for you? Who gives a shit what their motives are? If you listen to it and go, ‘Aw, come on,’ then they fucked up. But if they do it and you go, ‘Hmm, I wonder. . . .’ ”
Ween plays Terminal 5 November 30 and December 1, terminal5nyc.com