Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Funeral Dress [Shake It, 2005] A
  • Left for Dead [Shake It, 2007] A
  • Rigor Mortis [Shake It EP, 2008] B+
  • Wussy [Shake It, 2009] A
  • Funeral Dress II [Shake It, 2011] A
  • Strawberry [Shake It, 2011] A
  • Berneice Huff and Son, Bill, Sings . . . Popular Favorites [Shake It download, 2013] B+
  • Duo [Shake It, 2013] A-
  • Attica! [Shake It, 2014] A+
  • Public Domain, Volume 1 [Shake It, 2015] ***
  • Forever Sounds [Shake It, 2016] A-
  • Getting Better [Shake It EP, 2018] A-
  • What Heaven Is Like [Shake It, 2018] A-
  • Ghosts [Bandcamp, 2020] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Funeral Dress [Shake It, 2005]
In which Chuck Cleaver--Ass Ponys, you remember, they still play out around Cincinnati--joins unknown Lisa Walker, multi-instrumentalist Mark Messerly, and amateur drummer Dawn Burman for 11 three-minute songs, all about perfect, one after the other after the other. Small, but about perfect, with Walker handling the human detail and Cleaver tossing off metaphors--a sideshow horse, a shunt to drain the fear from his brain. It's an ideal partnership--vocally and lyrically, Walker grounds the old guy and he lifts her. The band sound is more Velvets than Burritos, yet country still. It's as if they've reduced all of white Ohio to an articulated drone, unlocked a silo or warehouse of hummable tunes, and worked out the harmonies. A

Left for Dead [Shake It, 2007]
I love this Cincinnati quartet for singers Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker, for songwriters Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker, and sometimes for guitarists Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker most of all. Where the pained Cleaver dominated their debut, here most tracks are fronted by the more rounded Walker. Not that she's at peace--in songs that feel realistic even though their details seldom kiss and tell, she struggles for love given and received in a state of spiritual hyperawareness suffused with a Christianity that won't let her memory loose. Lovely melodies soften her perpetual uncertainty. But those guitars, gorgeous droning things boosted by keyboards everybody but the drummer takes a hand to, saw away at her unsatisfied mind. A

Rigor Mortis [Shake It EP, 2008]
I underrated this EP five years ago because, having never seen the band play, I had no inkling of how much I'd end up valuing their live recordings--how much I'd love hearing two perfectly unmatched voices interact in the moment. The up-front redundancy of the title cut is now extended by the reappearance of the live "Rigor Mortis" and the formerly EP-only "Blood and Guts" on the free Berneice Huff mixtape. That said, I always thought the vibraphone-bedizened "Skip" was the choicest EP-only here, "Sweetie" squeaks and whooshes as it rocks out, "Millie Christine" adds a raw declarativeness one of their milder numbers thrives on, and "Airborne" is the finest version of their finest song, which leads their first and finest album. But of course, they're all worth owning. As is this. B+

Wussy [Shake It, 2009]
From their records I know this great couple band nobody's heard of to be mordant, obsessive, desperate. But having caught them live in Manhattan last year, I also know them to be urgent, funny, companionable. To be clear, they're a two-male, two-female quartet, but only grizzled fat Chuck Cleaver and lissome tattooed Lisa Walker are a couple. What's worrisome is that if I'm to take their latest songs autobiographically, which is hard to resist after that show, I should say they're a couple-I-hope, not just because I want them to keep making records but because I liked them together--and because this is as brutal a relationship album as Richard & Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights. It starts with a miserable reunion, gets bleaker, sets the tone for its upful moments with the lively "Happiness Bleeds," and keeps on bleeding till a spare, funereal closer with the ominous title "Las Vegas." But there's also good news. 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. There's hurt there always. But no discernible hate. A

Funeral Dress II [Shake It, 2011]
I'm so skeptical of unplugged Record Store Day thingies it never occurred to me to sample this one when it materialized last April. This means I was an idiot--when you love a record the way I love their debut, you never know when some alternate version might turn into, say, the live Daydream Nation that other couple group assembled. It also means the limited edition is almost sold out by now. What will you miss if you don't buy it--eek!--right this minute? Suffering stripped naked beneath the wit, tune, and transcendent noise you long ago learned to love. Detailed knowledge of how nuanced and expressive Chuck and especially Lisa's voice can be, and how delicately they're capable of interacting. Well-turned lyrics you never before had to concentrate on--and yes, they make sense except when they don't, which why should they always when life doesn't either? Acoustic guitars, brushed drums, occasional accordion. And a finale you never knew was so agonizing. Try to break up to that. I dare you. A

Strawberry [Shake It, 2011]
The first Wussy album in which louder, heavier tub thumper Joe Klug replaces Mo Tucker fan Dawn Burman is also the first he co-produced. There's more distortion, less naturalism; Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker yowl more, as when Chuck's aging head voice rises to the challenge of Mark Messerly's organ on "Pulverized." These alienation effects help define a rock that generalizes the connubial agony at the band's core, and if this is alienating for those of us who love them as well, it's also comforting, because it distances us from real-life couple Chuck and Lisa's real lives. I'd as soon assume the co-written "Fly Fly Fly" was inspired by a dumb young couple they know. I'm glad "Pizza King"'s tale of permanently adolescent disarray takes place in Indiana, not Ohio. And it's fine with me that "Asteroids" is so spacey--it means the heart "floating in the frozen void" might be metaphorical. A

Berneice Huff and Son, Bill, Sings . . . Popular Favorites [Shake It download, 2013]
I claim no objectivity about this wittingly ramshackle collection of remixes, demos, live versions, covers, and ancient interview snippets except as regards the number of times I've chosen to put it on at bedtime or breakfast--partly because my wife is as big a fan as I am, but partly because I knew by play two that what nonfans might consider its self-indulgences would never obtrude. The excellent new songs are all southern Ohio covers, two from their allies in the Afghan Whigs and one from someone named Jenny Mae. But if you believe that Lisa Walker may be the finest female singer working today, and that this band has never written a song you'll mind hearing again, then alternate versions are just a way to reaccess her vocal invention and their collective touch. Even the 2:33 worth of snippets fit in--Chuck and Mark are funny guys. Available gratis, of course, to anyone who likes 'em enough to visit their website. B+

Duo [Shake It, 2013]
Assuming these seven new-to-Wussy songs are de facto demos--for sure some and likely most but probably not all will be rocked up on a fifth album that now seems a certainty--we should think about not their acoustic settings but their acerbic subjects. No breakups here. Instead, three of Chuck Cleaver's lyrics address that other Wussy preoccupation, death, which invariably besets the kind of wacked-out and/or mean-ass loser who brains a monkey in the cheerfully entitled exception, "Ring a Ding Ding I'm Rotten Inside," while two of Lisa Walker's address yet another Wussy preoccupation, the failed consolations of religion. So her climactic praisesong to English girls who swim in the North Sea like it's summertime comes as a true relief, with Cleaver's piano tracing a delicate counterpoint. Inspirational Verse: "The Witnesses will all be waiting for the chance to be the first to squeal/As you're going through your souvenirs to help decide what is and isn't real." That's how I hear it, anyway. A-

Attica! [Shake It, 2014]
In which the best band in America remains the best song band in America while passing the Sonic Youth consortium on the outside to become the best distorto-guitar band in America, and although the competition in both categories has thinned out, how many ever dared combine it? Television? Nirvana? The Thompson Couple? That is the territory here. What once seemed the overkill of replacing minimalist Dawn Burman with muscleman Joe Klug opened a thruway to the big beat. What once seemed the neighborly gesture of taking in Ass Ponys steel hand John Erhardt powered sonic dimensions arena-rock dumbos risk tinnitus to achieve with Marshall stacks. The lyrics mix heroic feats of individual transcendence with a romantic striving vexed equally by economics and psychology as the melodies flow on unabated. Gender parity also guaranteed. A+

Public Domain, Volume 1 [Shake It, 2015]
Their roots alt-country, their sonics arena-drone, they subject five pieces of Americana history to the treatment for Record Store Day ("Poor Ellen Smith," "Lavender Blue") ***

Forever Sounds [Shake It, 2016]
This is the big-guitar record I've been expecting from my favorite band since Strawberry led with the space-rock "Asteroids" and assigned big-drum recruit Joe Klug to thump his tubs all over "Pulverized." When Attica! led with a "Baba O'Riley" tribute and added steel-driving man John Erhardt to the din, I half thought their arena phase had arrived. But this 40-minute barrage is the immersive boom-vroom itself--to use the technical term Chuck Cleaver laid on the release party, it's "noisy." This being Wussy, that means noisy as a means to arranged, collective support for songs that do slowly manifest themselves just like on every other album by this devout album band. But here it's the sound you come back for, and partly as a consequence, the songs don't signify as sharply as usual. Which doesn't stop me from devoutly hoping that Chuck's catchiest-in-show "Hello, I'm a Ghost" is nothing like autobiographical. A-

Getting Better [Shake It EP, 2018]
The Queen City Five begin this Record Store Day EP with a reading of the underappreciated Beatles classic in which Lisa Walker--her voice always calm, sometimes sweet, occasionally detached--takes Paul's positive-thinking lead, John's background harmonies, and also John's shocking "I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved" bridge. Then follow three winners from the Cincinnati songbook and the insufficiently legendary 2013 Berneice Huff mixtape--Jenny Mae's "Runaway," also all Lisa, followed by Chuck Cleaver's pensive take on the Seedy Seeds' "Nomenclature" and pained remake of the Afghan Whigs' punky old college-radio hit "Retard" with Lisa adding screamo to the refrain. Production is Record Store Day basic. But that's a good thing on a release that reminds us where Wussy comes from and can return whenever the mood strikes them, and also how deep their musical sagacity goes. A-

What Heaven Is Like [Shake It, 2018]
I was struck when the recently revived shoegaze "genre" came up in discussions of Wussy's seventh official album, because it evoked the only track of theirs I've ever disliked: the ethereal remake of the 2008 rock-with-xylophone?? EP track "Skip," where Lisa's deepened soprano whispers a lyric too fuzzy for a band whose turns of phrase pack colloquial bite even when literal meanings are gummy. The guitars tend more immersive than the echoing arena-rock of Attica! and Forever Sounds, proving that Yo La Tengo isn't the only great band addressing politics too painful to ignore by getting weirder. In the end, the intent is neither ambient nor calming, just dreamier than I'd prefer. So I'm glad I have no trouble attaching social significance to an opener that begins "Don't you wish you could have been an astronaut / Back when astronauts had more appeal," or to Chuck's pure-punk cover "There's Aliens in Our Midst." For we who believe heaven means achieving maximum humanity on the only planet we'll ever know, that's the way it feels now. A-

Ghosts [Bandcamp, 2020]
Although it skips their grungy revamp of New Order's "Ceremony," this free 40-minute odds-and-sods should hold off a ravenously discerning fanbase still bummed that they'll be stuck in Cincinnati till humans brainier and nicer than our crowd-craving, crowd-punishing führer-in-his-own-mind have quelled a disease that transforms live singing into an infection vector. Not counting one you may have missed on the 2019 Chuck Cleaver solo album you also may have missed, it's all alternate mixes if not new material, and not one feels redundant--the quieter and more lyrical original of Left for Dead's "Mayflies" by Lisa Walker's Magic Words and an electro take on Strawberries's "Fly Fly Fly" are just two standouts. The flat-out stunner is the opener, where Walker makes you feel that the kind and willing woman who sings Dusty Springfield's indelible "Breakfast in Bed" is being exploited nevertheless. Only then there's the fondly recalled Chuck & Lisa closer "Mountain in My Backyard," where the sort of ordinary Midwesterners whose foibles Wussy have long excavated are remembered as everyday heroes. A

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