When the Italian artist Piero Manzoni canned his own shit and sold it by weight at the price of gold in 1961, he was riffing on notions of artistic gesture, commodification, economy and ego. When Gene and Dean Ween do essentially the same thing on "Paintin' the Town Brown," a two-disc set of live recordings, they're just being Ween.
Heirs to Frank Zappa's smart experimentalism and bathroom humor, Ween have made a career as an absurdist dada duo given to glue-sniffing stoner antics and often brilliant songwriting. Think one part Cheech and Chong, one part Leiber and Stoller. Musically, they rifle through psychedelia, folk, punk, Philly soul, country and Muppet music like they're casually perusing a garage-sale record collection. After reaching a modest level of notoriety with the helium-high ditty "Push th' Little Daisies" in 1992, the band released a series of head-scratchers, including an album of 10 songs recorded with a corral of Nashville studio musicians and titled "12 Golden Country Greats," and a song-cycle either meditating on, or in no way related to, mollusks.
"Paintin' the Town Brown," on the other hand, is a straightforward picture of the band translating their freebasing vaudeville act to the stage from 1990 to 1998. Some of the cuts are masterpieces; some are most definitely pieces. Separating them, though, is never uninteresting. There's a peculiar joy in trying to decide whether the arena-rock "Chariots of Fire" outro tacked onto the end of "Japanese Cowboy" -- and rendered by the bolo-tie-spirited Nashville studio cats -- is brilliant collage or utter garbage.
Of course, that might not be much fun for someone unfamiliar with Ween's act, and that's the glaring weakness of "Paintin'." As goofy as Ween can be on their albums, their studio recordings are not all sophomoric rock 'n' roll cartoons. Expertly encrusted with warped-tape vocals, home-cooked electronics and clever guitar designs, records like "Pure Guava" and "The Mollusk" display a studio know-how that transcends the average 8-tracker's scratchy bedroom musings. The same goes for the songs. On record, undeniably smart mystical moods break up seventh-grade bathroom-wall poetry. Only the most consciously arrested would have the patience to sit through them otherwise.
Onstage, Ween strikes no such balance. Instead, the band inexplicably leans toward warped hard rock and metal. That gives "Paintin'" some highlights, like the quick strike of "Cover It With Gas," but makes a mockery of a song like "Tender Situation," which, on "Pure Guava" at least, was aptly titled.
The entire set isn't lost. On "Mr. Please Help My Pony," Ween manage to sound like they're bleeding off melting reel-to-reel tape. But Disc 2, anchored by two huge heaps of minced noise and a 26-minute barrage of loopy lysergic noise called "Poop Ship Destroyer," is something else altogether. In the liner notes written about that song, if not on the song itself, Dean Ween finally makes his most convincing argument for live recordings. "If we get money someday," he writes, "we want to get two big cannons that spray diarrhea on the crowd ... We've been talking about it for years."