Review by Ross Marvin
At the end of March, mere weeks before Paul McCartney sold out the entire Times Union Center in 10 minutes, Cincinnati rockers Wussy played for about 40 people at the Low Beat. Bassist Mark Messerly actually took a picture of the crowd from the NO PEPPER stage as though the modest turnout was a triumph by band standards. With today’s (Tuesday, May 6) release of their fifth album Attica! (Shake It Records), I can’t help but wonder how much longer the group will remain a well-kept secret among music critics, underground rock snobs and record collectors.
But, I do understand why critics like Robert Christgau fawn over these guys. They have a cool backstory: Veteran indie rock guy Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker start a band. The band is critically acclaimed, and Walker and Cleaver become a couple. Walker and Cleaver breakup, but keep the band keeps going. It’s an unlikely trajectory, but with music this good, you can understand the desire to stick around. Attica! is filled with one earworm after another, clever lyrics that border on the aphoristic, and the best kinds of rock and roll tensions — the ones that come from a relationship within the band.
Once lovers, Chuck and Lisa will always be music lovers. Walker has a Norton Records sticker on her Epiphone SG; Cleaver has sold records and vintage ephemera by mail order for years. Opener “Teenage Wasteland” (NOT a Who cover, though Cleaver does throw his Fender into full-on tremolo in the intro in amateurishly endearing fashion) is a loving homage to rock n’ roll with first lines that send chills: “Do you remember the moment you finally did something about it? When the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart?” Written and sung by Walker, who name checks Pete Townsend and Keith Moon in the lyrics, the song rocks harder than anything on Wussy’s first four albums. Some of this can be attributed to the addition of John Erhardt who adds distorted pedal steel and guitar to the album’s chrome drone gloss applied by their longtime producer John Curley of Afghan Whigs fame. Drummer Joe Klug pounds the skins on this one, and Mark Messerly continues to wear more than one hat, adding some tasteful keyboards in addition to his steady bass playing.
At the center of album’s appeal, though, is the vocal volley of the once front-couple. Walker has a voice that ranks among the best female front-women in guitar-rock (think Neko Case; Chrissie Hynde; a touch of Lucinda Williams), and Cleaver is a tried and true rock-lifer, most notably of the conspicuously named Ass Ponys, who were pretty much the Wussy of the ’90s — a band with an uncool moniker, making slightly twangy rock in the Midwest without ever being able to make the band a job that fully paid the bills. Cleaver, who also has worked as a stone-mason, is a first-rate wordsmith whose morbid humor shines through in “Acetylene”: “This is not a home, this is an apartment. Surrounded by the things accumulated here. This is not a dream, this is disappointment. Pop a cork alone to toast another year; Baby, we could burn so free. If only you would turn your acetylene on me.”
Cleaver’s songs on the album burn with love struck obsession. In “Bug” he sings, “You’re the drink, you’re the drug, you’re the bug that’s alive inside of me.” In “Rainbows and Butterflies” it’s more of the same: “I’m gonna love you till the cattle come home; I wanna send you into another time zone; I’m gonna want you until the end of my days.” He probably isn’t singing about Walker, but the songs come across so much better when you think he might be. Even the title Attica seems an apt reference to how it might feel to be in a band with your ex — like being in prison. Alas, great tension makes for great rock bands. The tension is in the guitars, too. All drone and fuzz and white heat. Walker and Cleaver aren’t necessarily technicians, but fans of Dream Syndicate and the Velvets should give this a spin.
While Cleaver’s skewed visions have long been appealing, I contend that the real gem of this album, and the band, is Lisa Walker. It’s a travesty she’s not already better known, and in the pit of my stomach I wonder whether she will ever leave the band for a solo career. I’ve always loved Cleaver because he is witty on stage, sharp in his lyrics and an emblem of DIY rock, but his high-whine of a voice is an acquired taste. In person, Walker has loads of star power, and on Attica, she takes a noticeable leap forward as a lyricist, creating documentary-style images of Midwestern life. The album is riddled with corn mazes, the fair, people drinking in the street on Halloween, Job’s daughters. They’re roadside images we know and love here in Nippertown. Put this on in the car and cruise up Route 9 sometime. You’ll see what I mean.
The album closes with tour-de-force “Beautiful” that exemplifies the push-pull pyrotechnics between Walker and Cleaver. Trading lead vocals each verse, the song tells the story of a house that burns to the ground (“a cigarette alone burned us out of house and home”) as a metaphor for a crumbling relationship (“we may have saved it if we’d only taken time”). It makes you hope these two have a long future together in their band, if not in the bedroom. The epic, sing-along chorus is among the catchiest in their catalog, and has a turn of phrase that is the essence of Cleaver’s songwriting: “I’m not the monster that I once was, 20 years ago I was more beautiful than I am today.” This isn’t the brash rock of 20-somethings or the made-up Americana of so many want-to-be true-grit musicians. This is wizened stuff from musicians that have the life scars to make everything feel damn sincere.
Listeners should be thanking Wussy for still making music like this, when stardom feels remote and talent too often takes a backseat to commercialization — what Mike Watt would call mersh. And thanks to the Low Beat for having the sense to bring them to Albany. I hope they bring them back. I hope more people go to their show. In the meantime, buy Wussy’s record because Chuck Cleaver needs to pay his rent.
House of Guitars and Albany from Wussy’s Tour Life