Photograph by Michael Wilson
The lead track of Wussy’s new album Attica! is entitled “Teenage Wasteland” and set in a cornfield. Its intro goes on for a full minute: synth-sounding-guitar-or-vice-versa ostinato to acoustic finery to piano-figure-plus-drums bringing home a full-band crescendo and finally a voice asking: “Do you remember the moment when you finally did something about it/When the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart?” It’s a song about another song, The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” with its long synth intro to Roger Daltrey’s scene-setting “Out here in the fields” and climactic “It’s only teenage wasteland.” It remembers, as Lou Reed once put it, how a life was saved by rock and roll.
The twist is that, like Sweet Jane, the rescuee is a woman—a woman who’s also a bigger and subtler singer than Roger Daltrey. Co-leader Chuck Cleaver’s gravelly twang and spiritual falsetto were strong enough to front a fine little band called the Ass Ponys until he met young Lisa Walker in 2001 and knew his fate. Ass Ponys good, Wussy great, end of story. In America—and Wussy are very American—only Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend show as much will and ability to make every album both different and superb.
What keeps Cincinnati’s greatest band 630 miles from Saturday Night Live starts with their piss-take name, alt-country tinge, and uncool passion for bad romance. Nor does it help that nine years after their debut Funeral Dress even the beauteous Walker is no longer a kid, or that hefty graybeard Cleaver looks like the stonemason he is. But above all it’s their retrograde notion of artistic progress, which is more about craft honed on the micro level than grand aesthetic gestures. Fervent formalists and record mavens, they construct concise, complex songs from the ground up and then propel them aloft.
On Attica! Walker is unmistakably aeronaut-in-chief—no showoff or narcissist, just a protean singer to reckon with. After Cleaver follows “Teenage Wasteland” with a fierce love song that’s called “Rainbows and Butterflies” because that’s what it believes in, her register descends below his on “Bug” before rising to meet the sweet clear hooks of “North Sea Girls.” The song “Attica!” is “a battle cry of what someone is willing to do for his own desperate, unconventional love,” Walker told me. Inspired by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, it begins almost fragile, but soon Walker is doubled electronically, and then she’s pumping up the volume. She knows just how far to stray from pure note values to heighten and humanize each line. Her ability to project empathy and dispassion simultaneously is an ongoing wonder.
Eighteen years apart in age, Chuck and Lisa were an on-and-off couple for Wussy’s first half-decade, and albums three and four went long on romantic trauma. But on Attica!, the bad relationships Cleaver evokes seem third-person, tiny stories about long lives riven by violence and fire or short ones beset by simple weariness. “To the Lightning” is literally two songs at once, Cleaver limning a bad marriage while Walker stays home from church on what sounds like a dimmer radio frequency. If the dreams-out-of-reach and regret-coming-down of her “Halloween” are a less exultant take on her own teens, her “North Sea Girls” is generous and lyrical. And it’s she who sings Cleaver’s “Home,” an unqualified promise of succor in adversity.
Initially the Ass Ponys seemed alt-country because they featured pedal steel and Cleaver played up his small-town drawl. So Wussy were put in the same box, Lou Reed drone and all. But once Joe Klug started boom-booming their drumkit on 2011’s Strawberry, that was just stupid. Where young musos think art is fancy song structures and the chord change you just learned, this middle-aged band targets not prog but its populist cousin, arena rock. Even rehired steel player John Erhardt eschews Nashville moan to pile on more of the guitar distortions that buzz and rumble through Attica!; given Lisa’s groan, “Bug” hints at death metal.
Wussy’s chance of liberating arenas full of young we’re-all-wasteds is minuscule. But telling the world their lives were saved by rock and roll is their life mission.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue