Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Many Reasons to Love Wussy

book cover

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'm oversimplifying, of course. Wussy are a moderately big deal in their unhip Cincinnati hometown, and in 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.) Nevertheless, they remain dishearteningly obscure.

When I say I consider Wussy the best band in America I mean I like or love--no, make that love or really like--just about every one of the 46 songs on those five albums: Funeral Dress, followed by Left for Dead, Wussy, the unplugged start-to-finish remake Funeral Dress II, and Strawberry. We're talking Beatles-Stones consistency here. I love the music, always credited to "Wussy"; I love the singing, by frontcouple Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker; and I love the lyrics, by one frontperson or occasionally both. I've seen them live 2008, 2009, and 2012 in a 25" x 100" basement on the Lower East Side called the Cake Shop. All three shows were knockouts, all different; in 2009, after I took my sister along as my date, she dragged her husband to see them again in Brooklyn the next night. Commenters on my Expert Witness blog traveled from as far as New Hampshire and Seattle for Wussy's March 3rd NYC appearance. Yet the 125-capacity venue wasn't quite sold out.

Admittedly, one oddity costs them. Their devotees know Wussy to be indelible melodists and wouldn't love them if they weren't. Once their songs have sunk in, you can't get enough of them, and not just the refrains--the intros, the verses, the guitar licks, the vocal interpolations, the bass and keyboard parts from attendant muso Mark Messerly. But for reasons I've never figured out, I and others have found that these recognition factors take time to register, and skeptics clearly don't put in the multiple plays. Why should they? Well, back when I was getting into Wussy's 2005 debut, Funeral Dress, now one of my favorite albums of the century, I had many reasons. Cleaver had led the eccentric and excellent country-rockish Ass Ponys just a few years before. Wussy's lyrics shared with the Ass Ponys' a midwestern particularity in which garbage trucks parade and a ticket to the human-brained horse costs a dime. The guitarists--Messerly sometimes made three--immersed Flying Burrito Brothers twang in Velvet Underground drone. And Lisa Walker had one of those voices.

In an era when the most technically dazzling vocalists rap rather than sing, when American Idol's fetishization of vocal calisthenics has been trumped by The Voice and sandbagged by Auto-Tune, when "post-rock" and dance music are preponderantly instrumental and indeed digital, when so much indie favors voices that are automated, anonymous, humongous, genteel, or classically trained, I could write a book. But instead I'll just say that one reason I adore the hard-to-find, basically acoustic Funeral Dress II, issued in a Record Store Day run of 500 a year ago, is that it showcases Chuck and Lisa's singing. The songwriting that was paramount in the Ass Ponys wouldn't have signified without Cleaver milking the hick factor in his pitch-challenged falsetto quaver, one of the more capable and unusual deliveries in '90s indie. But Walker's choir-primed instrument is even more remarkable--in part because Cleaver has extracted just enough choir from it.

The 52-year-old Cleaver says the 34-year-old Walker made him a better singer by teaching him not to drift off key--with no loss of idiosyncrasy, he gives the melodies their due. But Walker thinks Cleaver did her just as big a favor by loosening her up, because "it's better to sing incorrectly." Naturally fuller than we expect sweet, clear voices to be, sculpted by a midwestern accent that recalls Chrissie Hynde, her soprano has lost whatever angelic purity it once cultivated. There's a tartness to it--homemade lemonade with a big sprig of mint--and partly as a result Wussy's harmonies have an untamed quality. Lisa's still the smooth one and Chuck's still the rough one, but both are the strong ones, and both combine the exalted and the down-to-earth, with the spirituality of his high end exceeding that of her soft side. Funeral Dress II brings to the fore such poetics as the agonizing hesitations of the co-written "Don't Leave Just Now," Wussy's one plausible shot at a country hit that could pay their bills, and such sprightly breakup rhymes as this one in "Airborne": "Something from the yours pile / Shattered on the floor tile / And you went off like Frankenstein." But it's the two voices that dominate. I've rarely heard subtler, more responsive male-female duets.

Live over a loud, drone-drenched four-four, the structures are similar but the dynamics are different. Although Cleaver and Walker are conversational and supportive unplugged, onstage the frontcouple's wittingly yet spontaneously unsychronized shouts often make it seem like they're arguing with each other in the same words. The four band albums, whose evolution toward a bigger rock sound underwent a mutation when rumble-drumming Joe Klug replaced Moe Tucker--channeling Dawn Burman on Strawberry, achieve all the right syntheses--rock-meets-unplugged, urban-meets-rural, roots-meets-avant--in variants that mix plangent and distorted, plaintive and furious, lyrical and nasty, on and on. Compression is a constant. Of the 46 songs, 32 are between three and four minutes, with seven below and seven above.

Most or all of what I've been describing is formal--the many different musical satisfactions Wussy's rock and roll has a bead on. Although these guys are aesthetes with an aural gestalt like none other--aesthetes who cheerfully countenanced a stillborn remix collection by assorted Cincinnati electronicats--futurists they ain't. Cleaver is a pop polymath who's been selling used records by mail for 30 years, and Walker's onstage chatter at their Cake Club show launched an extended debate regarding Paul McCartney pre- and post-Wings--quintessential boy talk she dominated even though the music under consideration was recorded before she was born. But they advance a historical trajectory nevertheless.

The male-female partnership in American pop goes back to Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald and before. But the rock tradition is so male that for a long time its few exemplars were on the folky side--the Mamas and the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, Fleetwood Mac, the searing Richard & Linda Thompson. This changed materially with the L.A. punk band X, and soon married couples shared the spotlight in Amerindie's longest-running standard bearers: Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo. Similar units of varying structure and quality followed; the best thing about indie, male-dominated though it remains, is how natural it now seems for women to find a role or call the shots there. Yet even so Wussy's gender equality is pretty much unprecedented. Although Walker's guitar is relatively vestigial, she writes and sings half the songs and dominates onstage, rescuing Cleaver from the affectless diffidence with which he failed to put the Ass Ponys across. He's far more forthcoming as a second banana.

The couple band signifies in a social space where indie rockers age just like other humans. When Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore split last October, ripples of unease rocked quasi-bohemian bedrooms all across America, and though the band's long history of aesthetic distance undercut the surprise factor for me, I hope I never find out how I'd feel if a similar fate befell Yo La's warmer Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. With Wussy, however, identification has never been a big issue for me. It's almost as if male-female is another aspect of their principled formal balance, so far from the older bands' sprawl.

Anyway, beyond the records themselves there wasn't much information to identify with until 2009, when Cincinnati Magazine published a Jason Cohen profile outlining a romance so conflict-ridden that Walker disappeared with a guy from Chicago sometime in there. But the lyrics certainly made you wonder. As one would hope from the titles, Funeral Dress and Left for Dead are steeped in mortality and religious disquiet. But Funeral Dress begins and ends with three breakup breakdowns--the co-written "Airborne" and "Don't Leave Just Now" plus Cleaver's bereftly obsessed "Yellow Cotton Dress"--and there are plenty of others; the only glimpses of possibility come in a few Walker songs with the grace to envision a future. And Wussy and Strawberry, albums three and four, are all breakup all the time--even on Strawberry's catchy Cleaver dirge "Grand Champion Steer," which after capturing the underlying sadness of state fairs extends the metaphor with a flat "the affair was so god-damned obvious," or Walker's intricately melodic "Magnolia," which intimates other dissolutions as it depicts the air-crash death of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Cassie Gaines in 18 loving lines. It is a truth universally acknowledged that unhappy love makes better song fodder than the happy kind. But this seemed a little much.

Nowhere near enough, however, to put my wife and I off the best band in America. March 3rd was a Saturday. Wussy had played in Cleveland and slept in Youngstown Friday before driving all day to Manhattan so they could perform for 50 minutes and then drive 635 miles back to their day jobs. Between 6:30 and 8:00, however, Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker were enjoying Sichuan takeout, drinking tap water, and finishing each other's sentences in our dining room. Hefty and tattooed, Cleaver is grizzled and hirsute enough to have once gotten rousted from his hotel lobby till he could show he was a guest. His father was an irreligious factory worker in a small southwest Ohio town whose musical tastes somehow ran toward Manu Dibango. Supple and tattooed, Walker favors dark eye makeup and attracts her share of panting fanboys. She's a doctor's daughter from northern Indiana and graduated from a Christian college there. Both are divorced, with Cleaver awaiting his third grandchild. Cleaver works as a stonemason, though his chiropractor thinks he should quit before it's too late; Walker waits tables at a vegan-friendly hot spot in the bohemian enclave of Northside. There both reside--just a few blocks apart.

Correct: Wussy is a couple band no more--or rather, only formally. Describing their former love life, Cleaver slotted himself as the female, sensitive one, while Walker told us she'd been diagnosed as mildly autistic, so that her "emotions are hard to read." She has a boyfriend who's helping her get her teeth fixed; Cleaver is paying that chiropractor sans health insurance and has committed to Weight Watchers in an effort to "preserve the temple." But they love how they interact musically and regard each other, both said, as "best friends." An unlikely-seeming denouement, yet as they finished each other's sentences they were making an impressive, moving go of it. At the Cake Shop they would cram a set curtailed by a late-booked private party with songs from the two breakup albums, sometimes switching sex roles as they traded miserable lyrics through a guitar roar that keeps getting bigger and is now augmented by former Ass Pony John Erhardt on steel. The music felt cleansing in addition to everything else--the roar doesn't deny what the lyrics mean, but it does affirm that the pair have found something worth living for on the other side of the misery. That something is art. A critic friend who'd caught them five times said he'd never seen them better. My brother-in-law, a lawyer who moonlights on jazz trumpet, was also there. "I loved them," he told me.

It's been said before, but it bears repeating, and Jason Cohen put it perfectly in "The Ballad of Chuck and Lisa": "Playing rock and roll is just like playing jazz or writing poetry, except with way fewer grants and teaching jobs." Wussy have yet to sell 15,000 albums in a career now finishing its seventh year, and its members are pretty poor: Messerly, divorced with kids, teaches special ed, and Klug, the roar's engine, tends bar and works construction. Their records are most readily available from their label--Shake It, based in the totemic Northside record shop of the same name--in part because distribution costs cut so deeply into profits when a small band takes the conventional route, and they've only truly toured once up till now. But in 2012 they're determined to hit the road and get over the hump. If you see their name on a bill within driving distance, check them out and buy some merch. Bring your friends, even. Wussy can't go on forever without you, and they deserve to.

Barnes & Noble Review, March 16, 2012