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Holy Hell! The Mollusk Turns 20!

Holy Hell! The Mollusk Turns 20!

The Mollusk just might be the Weenest of Ween.

You can chart my downward spiral into music nerdom directly next to my increasing involvement with Ween. See, when I was 12, I regularly started downloading tons of music off of my step-brother’s computer. I cemented myself as a music pirate, and introduced myself to the wondrous world of Ween. My pre-teen self was not prepared for nine albums of nuttiness.

Now, I knew Ween from their contribution to the SpongeBob SquarePants movie, “Ocean Man,” but I was off put by the madness of their catalogue. Ween was a band that I got into individual songs, then singular albums, then the total catalogue over a period of nearly seven years. The Mollusk wasn’t the most disturbing, but it was occasionally the most confounding. I knew it was considered by many a Weenaphile as the group’s best, and I loved “Buckingham Green,” “Ocean Man” and (because of my humor at the time) “Waving My Dick in the Wind” on their own, but I found it a sticky, confounding, messy album. And nothing’s really changed. Now it’s just a sticky, confounding, messy, genius album.

Certainly from an outsider’s perspective, nearly all of Ween’s work can be categorized as messy. Cohesion is not a top priority, though that’s for the benefit of Ween’s genre hopping ways. The Mollusk alone trapezes through showtunes, new age, sea shanties, and shoe-string budget industrial. And that’s just the first four songs! Even for Ween, The Mollusk is all over the damn place.

Additionally, the vaguely nautical theme running through The Mollusk is easily tossed aside if it aids the album’s sound. With the opening and closing coming in the form of “I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight,” with Gene Ween’s voice pitched so that he sounds like a 10-year-old, the entire enterprise could be chalked up as a children’s stage production. Both a childish sense of wonder and humor go along well with the whiffs of sea air. The aforementioned “Ocean Man” wasn’t used accidently for SpongeBob. There’s a silly bit of joy to it, but with the warping drum hits and Gene’s ever distorted voice, it hints lightly toward hallucinogenics addling the musical activities.

And that’s, perhaps, the point. We’re here to get weird and have fun above anything else. And Gene leads the way in that department. He’s always had an incredible vocal range, changing from Eric Cartman-like whining to full on rock god from album to album. But The Mollusk is his full range on glorious display. Gene does deadpan humor perfectly on “Johnny on the Spot” and “Waving My Dick in the Wind,” delivering both without a hint of emotion, adding to the absurdity. And when he does go full Zeppelin, it’s something to behold. Going from the goofy road trip of “Waving My Dick in the Wind” to the mini-prog epic “Buckingham Green” is liable to create whiplash.

Outside of the opening and closing duo, The Mollusk could nearly have the same emotional effect if it was run through shuffle. Whether that’s a detractor or not is up to you, but it’s at least a testament to Ween’s ambition and ability to chameleon their way through music. Though Gene’s voice might be the guiding, trippy light through it all, his brother in crime Dean Ween brings a color and texture to the sound. Sure, Gene’s cult-leader shtick on “The Golden Eel” makes that song, but he’s preaching from a rock’n’roll foundation that’s all Dean. Dean’s been a criminally underrated guitarist for decades now, and, outside of a few blazing moments on 2003’s Quebec, this is his finest guitar album. He’s able to create the breezy vibe of “Pink Eye (On My Leg” and, a song later, pull off a scritch-scratch speedfest. And the awe-inducing “Buckingham Green” really cannot be praised enough. It’s an entire Genesis album condensed into three and a half minutes, filled with acoustic guitar duets, a Hendrix solo, fake as hell synth-violins and is better than pretty much any progressive rock album made post-1987. And Dean’s dexterity is at the core. He’s as much of a child of polka as he is Motörhead.

And between the two of them The Mollusk makes me laugh more than most Weird Al albums. Some of the funnies come from sheer strange moments, like Gene drunkenly asking for a mysterious “Billy” on the blacked-out waltz “Polka Dot Tail.” “The Blarney Stone” is the sound of a pub about to break into a barfight, with Gene and Dean joined by a slurred choir of bar-crawlers and an accordion as Gene gives his best nonsensical cheers “Get off my ass/ Ya wee bitty fuck” he opens, and only becomes more inebriated as the song swoons its way toward oblivion. “Waving My Dick in the Wind,” yes, has the best damn song title on this album, but it also generally hilarious thanks to Gene’s delivery and a sudden introduction of one “Jimmy Wilson” who does a ‘lil dance during the bridge.

So if all of this sounds like some stoner comedy turned into a record, you’re not far off, but you’re also not giving The Mollusk enough credit. Modern pop absurdist like Ariel Pink and even Tenacious D wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Ween. Pink, in particular, has been mining their surreal take on rock for the last few years and still hasn’t been able to match Ween’s greatest achievement: make something emotionally heartfelt in the midst of all this silliness and smoke. The Mollusk has a few of those moments, suddenly emerging from the jokes and trips. “It’s Gonna Be (Alright)” is simultaneously a pisstake of cheap, plastic-soul ballads, and a totally heartbreaking ode to lost love. And to take the pisstake to Inception-levels of strangeness, they break out “Cold Blows the Wind,” a completely straight-faced take on the English folk tune “The Unquiet Grave.” And the damn thing is sandwiched between the grooving rock nightmare of “The Golden Eel” and the instrumental goof “Pink Eye (On My Leg).”

And, finally, somehow, we reach “She Wanted to Leave.” Yes, the guitar appears to be winking, and Gene’s on another U.K. accent for no discernible reason, but it’s got the same heft as “It’s Gonna Be (Alright)” with Gene playing a pirate captain, trying to get his ladylove back from a treacherous band of buccaneers. But it all ends in tears. “fill up my glass to the rim/ I’m not the man I used to be/ Now I’m one of them,” sings Gene as a torrent of stormy keyboards and guitars swoop in. All very emotional. All very sad. Then the damn reprise of “I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight” creeps in with a detuned piano to truly close the album.

I wouldn’t call The Mollusk their weirdest album (The Pod), their catchiest (Chocolate and Cheese) or even their best (Quebec). My inner-12-year-old still wins from time to time and I find myself frustrated with the inconsistency of it. But, at the same time, it might just be the Weenest of Ween. An album that laid bare all of their flaws and talents in a brilliantly squalid album. As irreverent as it was brilliant. So, if nautical nonsense be something you wish…

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