- On June 13, 2016
Maybe you’ve heard (or at least heard of) Cincinnati’s best rock band Wussy but, unfortunately, you probably haven’t. They’ve avoided tangling with major labels and their promotional budgets that help get bands heard since bandleader Chuck Cleaver’s experience with his previous band Ass Ponys. Reflecting on his major label experience in an interview contemporary with the release of this album, Cleaver noted “I didn’t mind being on a major label, but I never really thought much about making money. I’m . . . attached to where I’m from.” That rootedness in his local region, which his bandmate, co-lyricist, and former romantic partner Lisa Walker calls “that spot between the North and the South,” is why they’re generally called Cincinnati’s best rock band, rather than what critic Robert Christgau calls them: the best band in America. And if maybe I don’t agree with him 100%, I’d certainly be willing to think it through on the merits of the band. Hardly anyone else out there writes songs this good, makes albums this good, or writes words this good. Or at least, not as consistently as Wussy has over their six regular studio albums (and assorted live releases, outtakes, and other recorded detritus). And that consistency over six excellent albums – the out of print debut Funeral Dress, the gender-equalled Left For Dead, this pained third album, the simultaneously noisier and poppier Strawberry, the masterpiece Attica!, and their noisy new one Forever Sounds – just might give them that top spot if I thought hard about it. But that kind of thing is silly – there’s no “best band,” there’s just the one you want to hear right now, and I pretty much always want to hear Wussy.
But what do they sound like? Well, they’re a little hard to pin down. They value noise and guitar drones and distortion in equal measure to how much they value melodic hooks, vocal harmonies, and rhythmic drive. Tune matches noise stroke for stroke throughout their catalog with neither the clear winner. They come on at times like Pavement or Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo’s rockier side without any of the self-conscious artiness; or maybe like grunge minus the fastest tempos and youthful angst. It’s just rock and roll, period. And they don’t value any of the musical qualities more than they value their words. All the music they write is credited to the entire band, but the words are the domain of Cleaver and Walker. They’re literate, but not necessarily literary; not like quoting Proust, but maybe literary as in Cleaver could be writing novels about Middle America if he wasn’t in a rock band. So it’s a damn good thing he loves guitars. And another damn good thing that Walker is his equal with lyrics. Also literary like they’re really good at making words that evoke a feeling or an image but hold out ambiguities that can be examined, thought about, or interpreted in different ways, evoking local color like drinking in fields, like mentioning a “Mother daughter banquet at the Bethel Baptist Church.” In their focus on the lives of average, Middle Americans – territory most commonly plumbed by the country music they sometimes pay an oblique homage to by bringing out pedal steel guy John Erhardt – they come off like John Dos Passos minus the politics, like Faulkner without the South or the streams of conscious. Both Cleaver and Walker are plainspoken, strong, unshowy singers, with Chuck more rough and ragged, Lisa sometimes deigning to be pretty but not making that a priority, unafraid to make noise with voice or guitar.
And then there’s this album – they don’t have a bad one, but this is one of my faves, certainly in the top three of their six records. It’s the last one with drummer Dawn Burman in the group holding down the steady rush in sync with utility hitter Mark Messerly, who’s credited with eight instruments and backing vocals. Robert Christgau calls it “as brutal a relationship album as Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights.” But he fails to note that it’s tinged with hope, even in its darker moments. (And that, in turn, fails to note that the couple is now decidedly split as romantic partners, but thankfully not as musical ones.) Two of the four opening songs – “Happiness Bleeds” and “Muscle Cars” – note the possibility of happiness for the couple, but it’s also hard not to notice that in one of those other four, Lisa sings “Well, honey, you’re the pain and the antidote,” summing up succinctly the ups and downs of their relationship. The band goes off in other directions too, indulging Chuck’s occasional preoccupation with mortality in “Scream and Scream Again” – the words “Time is seldom on your side” open the song, and throughout he assures you that you WILL die someday (“when it comes you’ll scream and scream again”) – whether you choose to take that with a measure of grace or not is your call. But as the record progresses, it’s clear this relationship really is in troubled waters – “Magic Words” and “Dreadful Sorry” both paint dark portraits of things and those two are followed by “This Will Not End Well,” a rocker with great lyrics, a ripping guitar solo in the middle, and the ominous lyrics “Call me a killjoy / but I don’t think I hear those wedding bells. / This will not end well.” But again, as they close things out on Lisa’s slow, mournful “Las Vegas” the last line before a closing chorus speaks of “a story we could live to tell” if they could pull out of their troubles. As noted, they didn’t – but it says something about them as people and musicians that even in dark times, they looked toward how to make it work.
I’ve said it twice already, but I’ll reiterate – Wussy doesn’t have a bad album. They’re a great band – maybe even the best band in America. Wussy, as its title suggests, is a great way to get to know them, but don’t stop there. And if you happen to have next Wednesday night free, check them out at the Moon Room at the Summit Music Hall. Last time they were here they played to next-to-nobody and still rocked it, so here’s hoping we can bring them the audience they deserve this time around. (http://www.moonroomatsummit.com/event/1123031-wussy-denver/)
– Patrick Brown