After a couple of albums that saw the band straying toward slightly more “mature” material, La Cucaracha finds Ween firmly back in Chocolate and Cheese territory – at least in spirit, if not necessarily in sound and style. If you had missed the days of Ween being wildly eclectic, jumping from genre to genre, then La Cucaracha is likely going to please you. New listeners, however, might still be left scratching their heads a bit. That is, of course, assuming that new listeners even take chances like this anymore.
The first reaction to a Ween album for the seasoned fan isn’t typically what it is for the uninitiated – who might be counted on to utter phrases like “Did they just say that?” and “This is so wrong.” No, long time fans know what to expect when it comes to the lyrical part of the equation – being offensive is simply part of the fun for the Dean and Gene Ween, and no one is exempted, which makes it fair in a perverse sort of way. What fans look for is just what the band took on as inspiration, because if one other thing is true about Ween, it’s that they’re masters at mimicking their idols – even if you can’t quite figure out who it is.
That’s not to say that everything they do is imitation, it’s just that they do it so well. On La Cucaracha, closing track “Your Party,” (which features the saxophone of David Sanborn – a fan of the band, believe it or not,) elicits the vibe of smooth early 80s pop, the kind of stuff that was soaked in coke that Bryan Ferry was so good at doing, while “Sweetheart in the Summer” sounds a bit like Nick Lowe’s brand of rootsy country-rock.
And often it’s just taking on a genre in particular – sludgy reggae in “The Fruit Man,” good ol’ country, a genre they spent an entire album exploring (1996’s 12 Golden Country Greats,) with “Learnin’ to Love,” and most surprising and entertainingly on this album, the electro-disco of “Friends,” with its ambiguously gay “let’s be more than just friends” message that is, frankly, almost entirely due to the music itself. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, you know.) “Blue Balloon,” bouncy and dreamy at the same time, bears those odd, helium-influenced vocals that marked early Ween tunes, and calls for repeated listens. It doesn’t sound like anyone or anything other than Ween – and that’s just fine.
If there’s a complaint to be issued, it’s almost solely aimed at “Woman and Man,” a meandering 11 minute Santana-esque jam that simply goes nowhere once the 3 minute mark is breached. That might be the point, that jam-band music goes nowhere. I’m not sure – all I know is that I simply don’t want to sit through this too many times. It’s just too punishingly boring to sit through to discover the hidden nugget of truth that, I hope, is buried somewhere in the song’s meaning.
As usual, there are a couple of real surprises in store. Quebec had the beautiful “Chocolate Town” and the Pink Floydian “Transdermal Celebration”; White Pepper boasted the odd mid-tempo ballad “Stay Forever” and the gentle “She’s Your Baby.” La Cucaracha is no different, except that the attitude has changed – it’s not slower, gentler songs alone being used to showcase the band’s strengths.
The first surprise opens the album: “Fiesta,” with its bright, blasting mariachi horns, is the kind of high energy, boozy party theme that could land the band more attention than ever before – it sounds like nothing Ween has ever done before. In fact, Dean Ween told the UK magazine Bizarre that they hope that Taco Bell picks it up for use in commercials. Sadly, it’s too much fun to ruin like that.
But it’s “Lullaby” that might surprise the most – the title doesn’t lie, and the song isn’t a joke. Every once in a while, the guys from Ween sober up and do something actually serious, and this is when it’s absolutely impossible to deny that these are talented musicians. “Lullaby” could nearly pass for – and I prepare to duck as I write this – Tears For Fears. Pretty and delicate, all piano, strings, and harp, it’s an actual moment of legitimate beauty from this band of known for often employing juvenile humor. It stands in stark contrast to so much else Ween does, but just adds to the reasons fans can use to refute attacks on their favorite band. Hopefully it gives someone other than the die-hards a reason to pick this one up, too.