Chuck Cleaver, frontman of Wussy, is certainly no wuss. Formerly of Ass Ponys, Cleaver hails from the small town of Clarksville, Ohio, where “If you did not do something sports-related, you were a sissy.” He seeks to reclaim the word and words like wussy. Why? When notoriously snooty “dean of rock critics” Robert Christgau declares that your band is “the best band in America,” you might as well toy with linguistics while you can.
It’s one thing to be hailed by rock critics as the best band in America, but for Cleaver, the distinction is sobering as the band is not exactly selling out venues. “Our fans are aggressively loyal, [but] they think we’re a lot more popular than we actually are.” He noted that about half the shows are arranged by individuals as the band finds it increasingly difficult to get gigs despite critical acclaim. Wussy, now based in Cincinnati, has neither the time nor the funds for pay-to-play, a common procedure now in entertainment booking. Cleaver is a stonemason by trade and his angel-voiced partner, Lisa Walker, works in a restaurant.
As a band fronted by a former couple, Wussy instantly evokes comparisons to Sonic Youth or Fleetwood Mac where the interpersonal demons are exorcised through on- and offstage retorts and eviscerating songs. Wussy, however eschews those stereotypes through a genuine songwriting partnership, especially on the last two albums, Funeral Dress and Strawberry, where its unique drone is punctuated by solid reverence for folk-pop. The comparisons get even weirder.
Critics laud Wussy but over-emphasize the band’s Ohio roots. It would be easy to circumvent the band’s dynamic and sound by saying something absurd like, “Wussy is Pere Ubu fronted by Chrissy Hynde!” however, that, is nowhere near true. The Boston Phoenix describes the band’s sound as “R.E.M.’s oddball songwriting crossed with Hüsker Dü’s factory-like fervor and the Mekons’ vast inventory of folk noises.” What does this even mean?
Aside from navel-gazing rock criticism, it is an apt description of Wussy’s song construction and work ethic. They have the capacity to write epic hooks over lingering melodies. They are prolific, having released five albums since 2005 on Cincinnati-based label Shake It, with another slated for 2013. And most important, they make ample use of the tools they are given. Cleaver remarked that he and Walker split the majority of songwriting duties, accommodating his vocal shortcomings with her luscious tones. “It’s beautiful,” he said, “if she’s singing it.” With Mark Messerly on bass, Joe Klug on drums and Afghan Whigs’ John Curley at the production helm, Wussy is a well-oiled machine.
While Wussy may go to Europe sometime next year, UK label Damnably is including them on an upcoming compilation. They played at this year’s SXSW to a small yet rapt audience of future rock critics who will be able to claim to have seen Wussy “way back when.”
Wussy will perform at Zoey’s on Wednesday, June 20.. For tickets and additional information, visit www.zoeyscafe.com.