Wussy’s rise from modest Cincinnati upstarts to one of the best bands on the planet has been slow and steady, a natural evolution that couldn’t have happened in any other way. And while I probably wouldn’t go as far as noted Rock critic Robert Christgau, who has repeatedly called Wussy the best band in America, an argument can certainly be made that there’s no one like them, which might be an even better calling card than Christgau’s.
What began as an unlikely partnership between singer/songwriters Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker has blossomed into a dynamic musical unit that now features five members, all of whom add their own unique elements to Attica!, the band’s freshly minted fifth album for local label Shake It Records.
Album opener “Teenage Wasteland” sets the tone immediately as a relatively extended intro — complete with shimmering, multilayered guitars, piano and drummer Joe Klug’s steady beat — recalling the song title’s iconic inspiration. And then, about a minute in, Walker’s expressive, otherworldly voice enters to deliver these words: “Do you remember the moment you finally did something about it/When the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart.”
It’s a pretty epic start to a diverse album, one that again highlights the singular, interweaving voices and evocative words of Wussy’s co-leaders. It’s a long way from the band’s 2001 beginnings, back when Cleaver was still in Ass Ponys and Walker was a neophyte performer.
“We knew eventually we would get to where we are,” Cleaver says. “I know that sounds really big-headed, but I remember telling people, ‘Yeah, we don’t own any of our own instruments, and we’re really quiet and stuff, but one of these days we’re going to be really fucking loud and we’re going to be a Rock band.’ ”
Walker says Wussy, which also includes multi-instrumentalist Mark Messerly, finally reached its sonic potential when it added former Ass Pony John Erhardt on slide guitar for 2012’s Strawberry tour.
“The songs got better and we got better with him,” she says. “There was this missing sound hole, and he fills that in. It kind of frees Chuck and I up to play different things.”
Enter “Acetylene,” a simmering, acoustic-driven song accented by Erhardt’s atmospheric slide playing and what sounds like a harmonium. This is Wussy as a cinematic wonder, as if Yo La Tengo now has a challenger in sonic diversity.
Speaking of which, check out the stellar “To the Lightning,” which features a wild, Ira Kaplan-esque guitar solo from Cleaver and enough dynamics to fuel three songs.
“I would be bored if all of our songs sounded the same,” Cleaver says. “I like the fact that there’s a palette. There’s noisy shit, there’s quiet shit, there’s fast, there’s slow. There’s a lot of harmonies. And nobody can figure out what to call it. Are we Americana? Are we Pop? Are we Rock?”
Walker says there was only one clear goal when writing and recording Attica!: “We said we wanted this to be our quietest and loudest record, and that’s what it turned out to be.”
They’re quick to credit the influence of The Afghan Whigs, with whom Wussy toured in 2012.
“I was really mesmerized by his performance,” Walker says of Whigs’ frontman Greg Dulli. “It was good for me to see that up close, to get to watch in the wings and see how somebody whips an audience into a frenzy. We’re not that kind of a band, we’ll never have that kind of effect, but I think we learned one or two little tiny things that we’ll eventually put to use one day.”
A lot has been made of Cleaver and Walker’s personal relationship, which they admit can be weird, but they’re more concerned with how their artistic partnership has evolved.
“It’s such a multilevel thing,” Cleaver says. “I’ve learned a lot from performing with her, from playing with her, from singing with her. I sing more on key now. I still sound like cats wrestling in a bag a lot of the time, but I’m better than I used to be. I curve my voice to fit hers. And I think she does the same thing.
“We haven’t been a couple for six or seven years. It’s been a long time. And the bottom line is that a lot of the songs have nothing to do with our situation.”
Asked how living in Cincinnati has impacted Wussy’s music, Cleaver, who moved here in 1977 from central Ohio to attend the University of Cincinnati, says he has no idea. Which is fine, because Walker, who moved here from Muncie, Ind., in 1999, jumps in to answer for him.
“There’s just a feel, there’s something here,” Walker says. “I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s a history. It’s very mysterious. It’s very unlike Columbus or Indianapolis, which are fine cities but totally different. They don’t inspire me. I can take a drive around Cincinnati, in the hills, and get lost a little bit and then I’ll think of a song while I’m driving around.”
Cleaver nods in agreement before adding, “And it’s relatively cheap to live here, and so we can create and be who we are without having to make a ton of money.”
The duo knows they’ve been fortunate to have champions like Christgau, patron saints like Shake It Records’ owner Darren Blase and a longtime friend and producer like John Curley, who they call the sixth member of Wussy when they’re in the studio. But, ultimately, it comes down to the songs, and nobody writes and plays songs like Wussy.
“I want to be a part of musical history,” Cleaver says. “I don’t have to be huge within it. I know that sounds really big-headed. I don’t have to be fucking Sting or any of that horseshit, but I just want to be a part of it. I feel like we do something together that deserves to be a part it.
“It doesn’t have to be monstrous.. It can be just exactly what it is right now. I’ve done it for so long with almost no monetary reward whatsoever, but that doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is that 10 years from now I can pick this (he holds a vinyl copy of 2007’s Left for Dead) up and say, ‘There I am. It’s proof that I was here.’ ”
For show dates, album info and more from WUSSY, visit wussy.org.