Twenty years after its release, Ween’s White Pepper persists as the band’s most accessible and affecting album in their storied history…
by: Michael Shields
In early May of 2000, the genre bending rock ‘n’ roll extraordinaires known as Ween released what was, according to many, their most accessible album to date, White Pepper. Marrying synth-pop, calypso, acid rock, and a myriad of varied soundscapes into one cooperative work of art, what Gene (Aaron Freeman) and Dean Ween (Mickey Melchiondo) accomplished with their seventh studio release was to package their potent eccentricities into an album that is enjoyable and soothing to music lovers beyond those who worship at the altar of the Boognish, the God/Demon that supposedly (assuredly!) appeared to Gene and Dean and commanded them to form a rock band. White Pepper is derived from the merging of inarguably two of the most revered rock albums in history — The Beatles’ White Album and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — and the reason for this fusing of titles becomes clear as one sifts through the album’s diverse offerings. Presenting a multitude of songs plainly bestowing a nod to the Liverpool quartet, White Pepper is rife with melodic enchantments and blissful psychedelia that pays tribute while staying emphatically true to the marvelously peculiar band that Ween assuredly are.
With this accessibility factor established, it is crucial to remember we are still talking about a band who, for many, came into the cultural spotlight in an episode of Beavis and Butthead, when the crass animated duo lambasted Ween’s video for their exceedingly peculiar song “Push Th’ Little Daisies.” Ween’s idiosyncratic nature can be found dispersed throughout White Pepper, in a Jimmy Buffet parody song romanticizing cocaine, a punk song named after a Burt Reynolds film, and even in a Steely Dan-inspired loungey jazz-pop number. Produced by Christopher Shaw, White Pepper is one of two Ween full-lengths not assisted by producer and de facto third band member Andrew Weiss ((The other, Twelve Golden Country Greats produced by Ben Vaughn.)). It’s an album where the band’s bizarre sense of humor and hard rock inclinations aren’t muted but supplemented as Shaw and the band drew their inspiration from power-pop ballads which resulted in what can be looked at as Ween’s most polished release, and surely its most beautiful.
“I’m on stage, it’s all an act. I’m really scared I may fall back on the abstract. It’d be exactly where I’m at.”
“Exactly Where I’m At” kicks off White Pepper, a vulnerable and honest song brimming with self-doubt and equipped with a potent psychedelic guitar solo from Dean. Exemplifying the full-bodied melodic arrangements found throughout the album, “Exactly Where I’m At,” which was performed on The Late Show with David Letterman, bleeds wonderfully into the pastoral psychedelia of “Flutes of Chi,” a psych-pop journey with opaque and ostensibly deep lyricism. “Even If You Don’t,” which follows, is a piano driven ditty that depicts a frayed relationship, one where a love isn’t reciprocated, and it also alludes to a bout of depression, two distressing notions that are laid out in wondrous contrast to the song’s buoyant melody. “Even If You Don’t” was released as a single on Mushroom Records with the B-side “Cornbread Red,” and a whimsical video exists that was directed by the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, long-time friends of the band.
True to form for a band whose output is consistently diverse, White Pepper takes an unpredictable turn as it expands into the middle section of the album, where one finds the island-infused grooves of the exuberant sing-along anthem “Bananas and Blow,” the fiery rocker that is “Stroker Ace,” an absolute scorcher when performed live, and the Beatlesque “Ice Castles,” a hypnagogic instrumental that was originally titled simply “Baroque Jam.” “Ice Castles” surreal soundscapes provide the perfect lead into the deeply affecting “Back To Basom,” a song that ostensibly attempts to replicate a Xanax-induced dream in which the listener dwells in a cloud of euphoria. The soothing catharsis of “Back To Basom” absconds where “The Grobe” begins, an enchanting acid-rock jaunt whose lyrics are unmistakable Ween through and through: “Put the pointed pencil in the pepper-po, And take a little sniff of the things below. Bring it to a boil and simmer low, Put the noodle on the griddle as it climbs the Grobe.” Rounding out the more outlandish section of White Pepper resides the frolicking “Pandy Fackler,” which refers to one of the demo tapes used in the recording of Ween’s sophomore album, The Pod. “Pandy Fackler” is a song that Dean explained came to him in a dream. A self-described “ferocious reader,” Dean wrote the lyrics on the inside cover of a book that he was reading as he drifted off to sleep, a fact that is surely unsurprising to anyone familiar with the song’s lyrical content, where we find “Poor little Pandy is doing the best she can, Eating cotton candy from the garbage can.”
Following the zaniness of “Fackler,” White Pepper pivots to its concluding act, embracing the unequivocally earnest in a seemingly irony-free trio of the most gorgeous pop songs Ween has ever birthed into the world.
“So many colors that surround you
Some so bright I can hardly see
A light reflects on all the things that make you real
Things that make you truly free
So far away but it’s so easy to see you
When I’m away I want to put my arms around you
And I want to know, do you feel the same way?
‘Cause if you do I want to stay forever”
First up is the alt-country gem “Stay Forever,” the prettiest of all Ween songs. It’s a heartfelt and sincere love ballad that has the capability to tug at the heartstrings of even the coldest of hearts. “Falling Out” follows, and recants the story of two relationships gone sideways, one of a suitor and their lover, and the other of two friends who were like brothers (lyrics that would hit a little too close to home later on when Ween broke up for a spell in 2012). “She’s Your Baby” serves as the perfect closer to White Pepper, a gorgeous cherry on top of an album that serves as proof positive that Ween, when called to the task, could write an entire album of perfect, yet surely unusual, pop and rock songs.
I have been moved, on multiple occasions, to tears at a Ween show. Sometimes, it’s simply because I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the power of the wondrous music emanating off of the stage, a testament to their unmitigated rock prowess and astounding live shows. But more often than not, when I’m wiping tears from my eyes amid fellow fans, it is while “Stay Forever” or “She’s Your Baby,” or other greats from White Pepper are performed. Chided occasionally by ardent Ween fans, likely due to its overt accessibility and lack of edge, relatively, White Pepper is the album that makes it clear Ween has a heart. It’s the one that can be pointed to as evidence that a band that relishes in its “brownness” is positively capable of heart-wrenchingly and beautiful music. White Pepper endures, twenty years after its release, as Ween’s pop masterpiece, a cohesive and moving piece of art that exhibits the jaw-dropping range of the band, and how pacifying their music is capable of being.