White Pepper marked a shift in Ween’s approach, moving away from outright weirdness and penchant for druggie juvenilia for a more sophisticated brand of genre pastiche. To be sure, they’d long experimented with different stylistic shifts – hell, they went and did a full album of country music immediately following the blissed-out weirdness of Chocolate and Cheese. But they’d never done anything quite like White Pepper, placing a greater focus on the songwriting and arrangements in order to craft a series of songs that perfectly mimic their stylistic antecedents. Where before they might have settled for something similar but with more bizarre thematic material and lyrics, here they largely play it straight-faced, if not necessarily straight. 1997’s The Mollusk often hinted at what was to come on White Pepper, but it still retained that trademark Ween weirdness with songs like “I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight” or “Waving My Dick in the Wind.”

This previously established sensibility is largely absent from White Pepper, the songs themselves functioning as not only genre exercises, but as a showcase for writing chops that had been there for years, if more often than not buried beneath insurmountable levels of absurdity. Opening track “Exactly Where I’m At” perfectly encapsulates the alt.rock aesthetic while also proving itself to be a damn fine song, loaded with hooks and an immediacy and accessibility that must’ve thrown off more than a few Ween fans expecting something much more subversive. Instead, it helps set the tone for the remainder of the record, showing the band to be not only great songwriters, capable of crafting radio-ready hits when and if they really felt like it, but also exceptional musicians. Unlike their previous efforts, White Pepper also possesses a higher level of production that results in a bigger, more impressive sound overall, something that comes to the fore as “Exactly Where I’m At” kicks into gear, opening into Technicolor pop perfection just past the one-minute mark.

Meanwhile, “Flutes of the Chi” delves deeply into psychedelia and all its requisite trappings to create yet another incessant ear-worm of a pop song that, while carrying traces of the band’s past performances (it sounds closest to, say, “Mutilated Lips” off The Mollusk), its heightened level of instrumentation, experimentation and pop craftsmanship makes it a joy to hear. “Even If You Don’t” relies on a Beatles-esque bit of Britpop pastiche for a jaunty, infectious melody with a solid chorus and interesting instrumental touches throughout. Three tracks in, White Pepper already feels like a greatest hits collection or, at the very least, a kick-ass compilation of disparate styles of rock ‘n’ roll.

And then, just to mix things up, they attempt to outdo Jimmy Buffet with “Bananas and Blow,” the most Ween song on the album. It’s as though they began to feel a bit too uncomfortable with settling into solid songwriting and genre exercises and, to ensure neither the band nor the listener would begin to feel complacent, “Bananas and Blow” comes along with its island-infused grooves to instill a sense of uncertainty for where things might head for the remainder of the album. Thankfully, “Bananas and Blow” is well up to the level of songwriting already put forth on the album, so its incongruous appearance doesn’t derail the proceedings.

If anything, it serves to kick things to the next level as they dive headfirst into the punk/metal riff-fueled rager, “Stroker Ace.” It’s a blistering bit of heavy rock ‘n’ roll that ends as hard and fast as it began before ceding its time to the tape-warped psychedelia of the instrumental “Ice Castles.” Sounding like a lost gem from some forgotten giallo film – think Goblin crossed with Popol Vuh and you’re pretty much there – “Ice Castles” is as close as they get to the aural weirdness of their previous outings.

The album’s second half is, if not quite as solid as the first, nonetheless a fine showcase for their chops as both musicians and songwriters. “Pandy Fackler” goes full Steely Dan with surprisingly effective results. Closing track “She’s Your Baby” leaves the listener with an achingly gorgeous ballad, calling to mind “Baby Bitch” if the latter hadn’t been sent through the Ween vocal manipulation processing center. White Pepper might not be the most representative Ween album, but it’s far and away their most accessible, making it an easy entry point for those looking to explore all things brown.

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