Some of the best rock bands of the past, alternative and
mainstream, have had male-female co-leads – early Velvet Underground, 1970s-era
Fleetwood Mac, X, Human Switchboard.
Wussy is a striking, significant addition to that legacy.
band, whose fourth full-length CD is Strawberry,
is still a faithful believer in the musical possibilities of a time when the
tunefully buzzy, intelligent indie-rock of the 1980s (Husker Du and the Pixies)
met the rawer, more emotionally exposed grunge of the early 1990s. It was a
short-lived era in which alt-rock was the sound of young (and not-so-young) America – an
integral part of the country’s cultural conversation.
Chuck Cleaver, whose wavering and emotionally committed
singing is a key element of Wussy’s sound (he’s also a guitarist), was around
for that period, as leader of the band Ass Ponys. (So, too, was Strawberry’s co-producer John Curley, as
a member of Afghan Whigs.) On the other hand, Cleaver’s equal
singing/songwriting partner in Wussy, Lisa Walker, is younger. The contrast
between the two only adds to Wussy’s freshness and magnificence. The band
combines a sometimes-foreboding sense of alt-rock history with sonic optimism
about its possibilities. The two distinctly different voices add color,
complexity and mystery; one never knows how or if Cleaver and Walker are
inspiring one another.
Honed into a tight quartet (with
bassist/multi-instrumentalist Mark Messerly and drummer/album co-producer Joe
Klug) that favors a densely textured sound that’s scruffy and edgy but always
clear, Wussy makes alt-rock that still cares a lot. Nothing ever feels like
received wisdom; it’s all fresh.
Cleaver is a phenomenal songwriter with an astonishing frame
of reference. His writing is imagistic and concise like poetry, yet revealingly
narrative like a short story. A mid-tempo, dusty rocker like “Grand Champion
Steer,” for instance, which appears to be about a day at the county fair, uses
specific details (the steer, a Tilt-a-Whirl) to build to a moment of profound
illumination – the way a lover’s look inadvertently reveals an affair. When he
reaches the final line, “Me I was off
spinning life out of wishes and air,” you’re amazed by the power of it. On
his “Waiting Room,” where he shares lead vocals with Walker,
he speaks of his partner’s face “with the
lines and creases coming on like U.S.
Grant took Richmond.” Wow! Who else is writing like this?
lyrics don’t operate on so many levels simultaneously (not all of Cleaver’s do,
either), but they are provocative and involving in their own right. She also
has a melodic voice with a haunting fluidity, like Chrissie Hynde. It can find
the beauty in hard, feedbacky rock (“Chicken,” “Magnolia”), but also add
etherealness to a slower, spacey song. For instance, “Mountain of Tires,”
which overdubs her singing to achieve a delicate choral effect, also builds
with rock ‘n’ roll urgency to a chiming guitar solo. And as the guitars wrestle
with noise on her remarkable “Pizza King,” her voice conjures bittersweet
memories of “another sunny day in Indiana.”
Curley and Klug’s imaginative production – layered voices
here, a piano flourish there, an
acoustic-guitar strum to quietly open a song before the sharp electric
guitars enter – adds immeasurably to the album’s success. So do the lynchpin
drumming of Klug and the all-around musical support supplied by Messerly.
and closes with inspired choices. Leadoff “Asteroids” is wonderfully catchy, a
simple, haiku-like statement (“Way
out/beyond the asteroids/that’s where you took my heart and left it/floating in
a frozen void”) that’s repeated – with both Cleaver and Walker singing in
echoey unison – as various instruments add variety. The theremin provides
wooze, the harpsichord a grand interlude, all while the bashing rhythm section
keeps it all anchored.
The last song, Walker’s triumphant “Little Miami,” starts
with the kind of murky, minimalist repetition that the Velvets introduced to
rock, but then her voice builds and the guitars lock onto the synchronized
drone that radiates the song outward…beyond the asteroids. Wussy reaches for
transcendence and finds it. You wish it would go on forever.
Champion Steer,” “Little Miami”