I have a confession to make. I think we know each other well enough by now for me to tell you an awkward secret about myself: I love Ween.
It’s true. Out of all the bands I’ve seen, I’ve been to more Ween shows (five) than any other band (excluding my friends’ bands that I’ve seen dozens of times). Ween was a part of growing up. I can recall glorious days of my youth spent in my basement room listening to Pure Guava, so high I had to push myself off the ceiling to lay down. Nights with friends trying to decipher what the hell was going on with The Pod, days driving around in the backwoods blasting Chocolate and Cheese. Fond memories of seeing Ween (and their parents) at the Trocadero in Philly for the first show of their Chocolate and Cheese tour, and hearing them play seven songs off God Ween Satan, which I immediately went out and bought (we didn’t have downloading back then, sonny!).
I hitchhiked down to and back from that show with two friends, crashed at a sweet gal’s house, and started a Ween addiction that’s seen me catch them at Jam on the River in Philly, and at an epic county fair. (How Epic? The lineup was Sonic Youth, Ween, and Flaming Lips headlining, and the fair had six-legged cows, a goat that could be on the cover of a Slayer album, and a three-foot tall lady with her own trailer, which you could peek into for a dollar and watch her watch tv on a tiny, built-to-her-scale couch. Did I mention you could drink in the parking lot?)
So when I heard Gene Ween (a k a Aaron Freeman) was releasing his first-ever solo album, I knew I had to be the one on THE BOMBER JACKET to review it. Was I worried that it wouldn’t live up to my lofty expectations? Sure, how could I not be?
Given how incredibly diverse Ween’s sound is, it was difficult to guess what Marvelous Clouds (Partisan Records) would sound like. The only clue I got before listening was that the album was actually a tribute to Rod McKuen, an artist/songwriter/poet from the ’60s. McKuen’s biggest hit was the song “Seasons In The Sun,” though the popular version was sung by Terry Jacks.
Aaron Freeman joins a long line of musicians who have covered McKuen’s songs, including Madonna, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash. In fact, Freeman is not the only person to put out a whole album of Rod McKuen covers: Frank Sinatra did it in 1969 with an album called A Man Alone. So how did
Gene Ween Aaron Freeman decide he was going to walk in Sinatra’s footsteps and put out an album of covers from a now-obscure poet from five decades ago?
Blame producer Ben Vaughn, who also produced Ween’s 12 Golden Country Greats. Apparently, it was Vaughn’s idea for Freeman to do an album of McKuen songs. Vaughn knew of Freeman’s love for ’70s soft rock. Even though Freeman had never heard of McKuen beforehand, he quickly took to the idea of recording an album of McKuen covers after Vaughn played him a few records.
After getting a chance to listen to Marvelous Clouds, the pairing of McKuen’s lyrics with Freeman’s voice and sensibilities makes great sense. Like Freeman, McKuen was disdained by some critics for his “silliness.” Yet Freeman has made a career of pulling emotion and meaning out of ridiculousness, and puts that experience to good use here. Lines that might be played for humor in Ween get a straightforward treatment from Freeman, singing each one like he wrote it himself months ago. I imagine the earnestness of McKuen’s lyrics struck a chord with Freeman, who never cared much for what everyone else thought of his music. McKuen’s sentimental and imaginative lyrics are not so far removed from songs Freeman wrote for Ween. Fans of currently in-hiatus Ween won’t be disappointed by Marvelous Clouds, despite the absence of Dean Ween. The album stands on its own, similar enough to Freeman’s work in Ween that it won’t scare off fans, yet distinctive enough that there’s no mistaking this for anything but Freeman’s baby.
Let’s take a quick stroll through Aaron Freeman’s Marvelous Clouds, shall we?
“As I Love My Own”
A great way to start the album. Electronic tingles, harpsichord, the beat coming in strong. Freeman opens up with a love song about love and self-worth. ”And I love your hair, as I love my own.”
Feeling a Leonard Cohen vibe from this track. The sparse instrumentation really enhances the feel. The song could’ve almost fit onto The Mollusk, but Freeman’s treatment keeps it from sounding like it’s from any one place, giving the track a worldly feel. We also get a bit of cloud imagery, something that floats through the whole album.
Speaking of The Mollusk, here’s another track that could have been a b-side from that album. The title track is enhanced with the sounds of war, staying true to the feel McKuen was going for. Definitely the most “Ween-y” track thusfar, with a solid drumline taking the place of a Deaner guitar lick. “The Golden Eel” meets “Flutes of the Chi.” This could be part of the soundtrack for a quirky Civil War film.
“A Man Alone”
Covered by many, Freeman puts his own spin on the McKuen classic. So soothing, it’s easy to imagine Freeman in some smoky bar, leaning up against a piano as he sings in a white suit, his hat hanging low. On this track, Freeman really croons. He gives earnestness to a sarcastic yet honest song about how to stay alone. With all the meltdowns and obstacles going on in Freeman’s life the last few years, I imagine he found this song hit close to home.
“The Beautiful Strangers”
Beginning with the type of harp you’d hear in a medieval royal court, Freeman brings sweetness to an ode for one night stands. A nice guitar lick is plucked down in the middle of the track, and we get one of those “is the song over…no, it’s back again!” moments near the end. Try playing this one at the end of a long session of romancing someone you just met.
“Doesn’t Anybody Know My Name?”
This track would be right at home on 12 Golden Country Greats. One of my favorite tracks on the album, and one of the best choruses consisting mainly of numbers that I’ve ever heard. “2:10, 6:18, 10:44.” You’ll be singing that chorus from coast to coast, America.
“One By One”
This song sounds like it was extracted directly from the ’70s. Definitely the album’s closest resembelance to Ween, complete with a silly chorus. Yet the cheeze here is played more for warmth than humor, like Freeman is singing in front of a fireplace surrounded by muppets. That would be a great video.
“Pushing The Clouds Away”
Gene Ween as William Shatner. That was my first impression of this track. Or Jack Handy as Mr. Rodgers. For added fun, picture Freeman strolling down a beach in sandals in white linen as you listen. This is the only track that got a real laugh out of me, though Freeman doesn’t play it for humor. More of an interlude than a song, this would be a great intro to a very strange show.
With a classic, galloping beat, “The Lovers” is one of the more energetic tracks on the album. This is another song that sounds like it comes from a different time. One of the album’s highlights, McKuen’s beautiful lyrics are treated lovingly by Freeman.
Freeman is used to singing songs to specific people. This one is much nicer than “Mr. Richard Smoker,” that’s for sure. The dog who barks on this track is not listed, I’m hoping his name is Mr. Kelly.
“Love’s Been Good To Me”
Lots of folks have covered this one, and Freeman does a great job with it. It definitely has a Ween feel to it, though it takes a little suspension of disbelief to believe Freeman as a ladies man, which I suppose makes it even better. Perhaps such honest odes to makin it with the ladies felt out of place in Ween, a band with songs like “Object,” “The Blarney Stone,” and “Put The Coke On My Dick.”
The strong bass line gives this one a jazzy feel. At this point, maybe Freeman is trying to tell us he wants to meet some ladies while he’s touring for the new album. If I were a middle-aged honey at an Aaron Freeman show, and wanted to throw my undergarments up to him during the show, this is the song I’d do it to. Theoretically speaking, of course. It would be a change from the nitrous cartridges and joints he’s used to getting thrown at him.
“The World I Used To Know”
A good song to end on; the track has a robust sound, and more of a Ween feel than much of the album. One of the stronger tracks on the album, it wins you over fully once Freeman changes from singing and starts talking. Any song with the lines “I can paint your eyes and say, ‘This is where I lived for twenty minutes or more.’ / I order grapefruit, and pay for ruined napkins,” is pretty alright with me.
All in all, it’s a good, solid album. It will grow on you with repeat listenings. Freeman’s choices made on the album all seem to work out pretty well. Try “Marvelous Clouds,” “Doesn’t Anybody Know My Name,” and “The Lovers” to start, sliding gently into “One By One,” “A Man Alone,” and “As I Love My Own.” I think you can handle the rest.
Until our incredible issue #10, stay wonderful, and keep trying to push those clouds, kids.