A few years ago I stumbled across an intriguing review from Robert Christgau, of a band I’d never heard of: Wussy, from Cincinnati. Christgau is the anti-Lester Bangs, precise where Bangs is expansive, and once you get used to his style, and by extension his ear, you learn where his taste matches up to yours. So when he wrote this, I was intrigued: “With Walker’s soprano simultaneously reasonable and fraught, Cleaver’s rough tenor spooked by Appalachian Cincinnati, their country-drone guitars and locked-in rhythm section never give up, not even on the slow ones.” Country, drone, a great rhythm section, and an Appalachian accent, plus a comparison to Shoot Out the Lights: I had to hear it.
This year Christgau stepped up the praise.
Wussy have been the best band in America since they released the first of their five superb albums in 2005, only nobody knows it except me and my friends…. [I]n part because so many of my friends are rock critics, their 2011 Strawberry finished 109th in the 2011 Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll – not bad for a band never once mentioned in Pitchfork. (Ever.)
Wussy is a pretty traditional four/five-piece rock band, led by Chuck Cleaver of the unsung ’90s band the Ass Ponys, subject of a recent Believer piece (h/t Robert Loerzel). He’s joined by Lisa Walker, whom Christgau compares to Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders’ great bandleader. Hynde is from Akron, so between her and Cleaver Wussy sound covers a lot of Ohio; for good reason, one of their lyrics is “I can tell by your accent that you’re from Ohio":
Cleaver grew up in Clarksville, an hour north of Cincinnati, and says that he’d only been down to the city twice before enrolling at UC in the late ’70s. During the Ass Ponys years, he lived in Bethel, a part of Clermont County that was more country than not; he still speaks with something of a drawl, and his songwriting has always had a small-town gothic sensibility. In a 1994 review in The New York Times, Neil Strauss compared him to both William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, though the same article identified Ass Ponys as “a rock band from Cleveland.”
Why isn’t Wussy more popular, other than the fact that they’ve stuck it out in Cincinnati? The only reason I can think of is that there’s nothing strikingly new about their sound, though they compress much of what I love about American rock music into a coherent, wonderful signature. Christgau hears “Flying Burrito Brothers twang in Velvet Underground drone,” to which I’d add R.E.M. jangle, Son Volt’s country stomp, and the male/female dynamics of Richard and Linda Thompson and X. It’s Americana, but Americana after everything good about rock had a decade or two to sink in. It’s hard to go wrong with them, but I’d start with their 2009 self-titled album, and they’re headlining the Bucktown Arts Festival on Saturday (they also open for the Afghan Whigs at the Metro in October).
Here’s my favorite Wussy song, “Maglite.” It’s an acoustic version, so it doesn’t capture quite how much like the Velvet Underground they can sound, but it’s too good not to share.
This live KEXP performance from this year is a better example of their actual sound, and its seamless blend of… well, basically everything good about rock music, such as their ability to use a slide guitar in the service of both postrock drone and ragged country-rock.
Photograph: Jim Bennett