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ALBUM REVIEW: Plenty in ‘Freeman’ to satiate longtime Ween boosters

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The breakup of Ween a few years ago is still sending bummer-waves through the rock community. Over the decades, ugly flame-outs have ended many a band (Beatles, anyone?), but few were as sad as the one that took place on Internet message boards and in the press between Gene Ween and Dean Ween, the self-described “brothers” who started their it’s-not-a-band-it’s-a-lifestyle when they were only teenagers.

One upon a time, Gene (given name: Aaron Freeman) and Dean (aka Mickey Melchiondo) were two goofballs and music freaks with a knack for writing pastiche and parody songs that somehow transcended their silliness, often blossoming into legit rock anthems and beautiful AM-gold analogues. The band morphed from a two-piece into a full group that would play epic-length concerts full of jams. And they proudly did all the drugs and drank all the alcohol.

Until Aaron Freeman couldn’t do that, anymore. The Ween train, fueled by substances illicit and otherwise, was brought permanently into the station when Freeman realized his body and mind could take no more. He hastily pulled the plug in public, without even informing his band beforehand. Ween fans were devastated. Mommy and Daddy Ween had split up, and it was not on good terms. Many Ween freaks took sides with Deaner, finding Gener’s axe-drop offensive. And then, when the first post-Ween album was a collection of Rod McKuen covers by Aaron Freeman, they got even more offended.

But many of them are now rethinking their early knee-jerk reactions upon hearing the first track off of Freeman’s self-titled album. It’s his first record of original compositions since Ween’s mediocre last album, “La Cucaracha,” and it starts off with a song called “Covert Discretion” that could be one of the best things released in 2014. It’s a harrowing, painfully honest tale of a rock star staring death in the face that recalls Elliott Smith’s posthumous “From a Basement on the Hill” in its stark frankness. The difference is, Smith died, and Freeman has no intention of doing so.

After several verses of Freeman recounting bleak tales of fleeting drug-buddy friendships, drunken blackouts, ostracization and self-loathing, the song turns on a dime and becomes an anthem for self-preservation. Like a giant light bulb going off over the singer’s head, Freeman realizes that his one life is more important than living up to his fans’ expectations, and he turns this feeling into one of the best choruses he’s ever written.

“[F-word] you all / I’ve got a reason to live / and I’m never gonna die,” Freeman sings, his new band sneaking in behind him and then bursting into view like the sun suddenly can on an otherwise overcast day. (Duluth content warning: Freeman drummer Kyle Keegan spent a good amount of time in Duluth, playing with members of Trampled By Turtles, Marc Gartman, Sarah Krueger and others.)

It’s a gooseflesh moment. Gene Ween may be dead, but Aaron Freeman is here, and he’s planning on sticking around. The guts of opening his first proper solo album with a giant musical middle finger to possessive fans and unsupportive bandmates is almost heroic, and it’s the opposite of the platitudinous post-rehab tripe that most rockers in recovery spew.

And then there’s the rest of the album. It’s definitely missing the hard edges that Mickey Melchiondo brought to Ween, and the drug-induced bizarro stuff is (understandably) not to be found. The album as a whole is pretty down-tempo and low-energy. But the good songs are quite good, and several of them are future-classic Freeman tunes.

“The English and Western Stallion” sounds like a melodious XTC outtake, and “(For a While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like a Man” would’ve been a fan favorite in the Ween days. “Golden Monkey” and “Black Bush” get closest to the Gene Ween of old, with strange lyrics and vocal bits suddenly appearing and then vanishing back into the swirl.

In all, there’s plenty here to satiate longtime Ween boosters, and “Covert Discretion” is a smackdown that should shut up anyone who bagged on Freeman for cutting the cord to his former life. It’s clear that the man once known to so many as “Papa Gener” had no choice but to take off the mask that had once defined him to save his own life, but he’s not going to go gently into his new venture, and by killing Ween, Freeman just may have made the best move he could to keep the voice and soul of that band productive and vital as an artist.

“Be grateful I saved me from myself,” Freeman sings on his first sober statement as a musician. It’s good advice, and, given the quality of this album, that gratitude should come from Ween fans pretty easily

Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at tonybennettreviews@gmail.com.

‘Freeman’

Artist: Freeman

Album: “Freeman”

Produced and engineered by: Chris Shaw

Website: partisanrecords.com/artists/freeman

Personnel: Aaron Freeman (vocals/guitar), Kyle Keegan (drums), Brad Cook (bass), Chris Boerner (guitar), several others

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