In 2000, Chuck Cleaver, guitarist and singer for the Cincinnati-based Ass Ponys, was asked to do a solo set. Knowing he had stage fright, his friend Lisa Walker asked if he had ever considered singing with another person. He wrote some words on a napkin; the two of them sang together and a vocal musical duo was born.
Cleaver and Walker, along with bassist Mark Messerly and drummer Joe Klug, make up the band Wussy, which has been incredibly consistent in both greatness and obscurity. While so many of the supposedly-underground Pitchfork-praised indie bands have been making a decent living off of their music, the members of Wussy still have day jobs.
In 2005, Wussy’s debut album “Funeral Dress” was released and established them as a tuneful indie-rock band that could nail twang as well as noise.
The lyrics, written by Cleaver and Walker, were often sad, angry, vicious breakup songs that dealt with little things not often discussed in song lyrics, like items (the silverware in “Yellow Cotton Dress”) that serve as reminders of somebody who isn’t there anymore. As well as the separation of items (in “Airborne”) that precedes the separation of two people.
While many pop stars sing about how they don’t need their exes, it is clear that the characters in Wussy’s songs need each other, even if it’s for something as simple as breaking awkward silences. They need each other as much as Cleaver and Walker’s voices need one another.
Wussy’s 2007 follow-up album, “Left for Dead,” was much more subtle. The hooks didn’t stick out as much, song topics weren’t as obvious and unlike “Funeral Dress” it wasn’t very immediate. It’s an album that definitely requires patience, and if you give it time you’ll be treated to 12 songs nearly as memorable as the group’s first batch. Highlights include the excellent “Sun Giant Says Hey,” the gorgeous “Jonah” and possibly their best rocker “Rigor Mortis.”
While the first two albums drew their names from songs by the group, Wussy’s third album, released in 2009, was simply titled “Wussy.” Their gift of melody came through as much as ever, and the obvious “Twist and Shout” influence on “Maglite” made it clear that Cleaver and Walker had finally recognized the Lennon/McCartney power their voices had. On songs like “Little Paper Birds” and “Muscle Cars,” the two worked off of each other’s voices in various ways, which made the album an artistic advancement and as interesting as their previous records.
2011 brought two new Wussy albums: “Funeral Dress II,” an acoustic remake of their first album, and “Strawberry,” their first studio album with new drummer Joe Klug. The fact that both their quietest and loudest albums were released in the same year is baffling.
While “Funeral Dress II” puts a large emphasis on the album’s vocals, “Strawberry” puts the music front and center. Unlike their original drummer Dawn Burman, who parted ways with the band in 2009, Klug knows how to drum beforehand. If you compare Burman’s drumming on “Funeral Dress” to the live versions of the same songs with Klug, it’s obvious that he is more skilled and that definitely shows through on “Strawberry.”
Suddenly, the tuneful folk band was getting noisier than they’d ever been and were experimenting more. On the track “Pulverized,” Cleaver managed to make one of his catchiest choruses out of lines that strangely read like a verse: “Is it carved in bone, or set in stone? Regardless I’ve been wondering, if the ever after thing is true. Rockefeller said the word, flipped the bird and came out thundering. Rockefeller never dealt with you.”
Meanwhile, Walker lets all her sadness out on the track “Magnolia,” and used her voice on “Waiting Room” in a way she never had before: as a buildup to Cleaver’s. “Strawberry” was easily their most consistent album since “Funeral Dress,” despite being completely different from it.
In 2005, Wussy was saved from complete obscurity by music critic Robert Christgau, who ranked “Funeral Dress” as No. 12 on his year-end list. By 2009, Christgau named the album as his No. 4 of the decade.
With less than 15,000 albums sold and a group of obsessed fans, the band works hard – and that hard work is paying off. This fall the band will join the Afghan Whigs on tour and with their growing fan base: The future certainly looks bright for Wussy.
For tour date information and to preview songs by Wussy visit the band’s website.