Often, the non-debut self-titled album is utilized by a wayward band looking to reclaim a statement of purpose, a la Weezer’s 2001 self-titled album (their 2008 one, too, for that matter), or by a band operating at the peak of their powers offering a definitive self-assessment (think, I dunno, Metallica). The Cincinnati, Ohio left-field alt-countryish quartet Wussy go eponymous on album number three, and given their track record on their two previous enjoyable records, Wussy, to finish the above comparison, matches the authority of Metallica’s Black Album with the pop sensibility of Weezer’s Green Album.
Wussy picks up where its two predecessors left off—with frontpeople Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker wedding dark, obtuse lyrics to riffs rejected for being too weird by more staid alt-country holdovers (like, say, Willard Grant Conspiracy) and emerging with an off-kilter pop record streaked through with black humor. The formula has carried the band through three albums now. The primary difference this time around is the more equal distribution of writing credits, after 2005’s bleakly comic, Cleaver-centric debut, Funeral Dress, and 2007’s less specific, more metaphorical, Walker-heavy Left For Dead. (They do have a knack for catchy album titles, eh?) The balanced attack brings out the best in the songsmiths, from the opener, “Little Paper Birds”, where Cleaver does a delicate Kurt Wagner impression over his high-wire guitar line, to Walker’s “Gone Missing”, anchored by the menacing undertow of Mark Messerly’s bass line and the quietly hopeful closer, “Las Vegas”. And when their voices join together, as they do on “Muscle Cars”, you can only give thanks that these two unique voices—in every sense of the phrase—found each other.
It’s also a minor miracle that Wussy consistently has a knack for keeping the proceedings from getting too dark. Sure, Cleaver promises/threatens that “happiness bleeds all over you” on the standout track “Happiness Bleeds”, while his guitar rumbles with something approaching post-punk fury. But then, there’s Walker right behind him, “la-la-la”-ing with Messerly’s keyboard blithely bouncing along. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry, right? Or the steel guitar waltz “Dreadful Sorry”, Cleaver’s contribution to cataloging Ohioan ennui (see also Pere Ubu, Devo, etc.): “Some call this living, but I call it living a lie.” Too, there’s the cynical relationship metaphor “Death by Misadventure”. It’s not a John Hiatt cover, but suddenly the comparisons between Cleaver and Hiatt are oh so obvious: two Midwestern guys with a twang in their voice—and their guitars—who can turn a phrase and aren’t afraid to tackles bleak topics with good humor and an honest eye.
There’s still a nagging sense that Wussy are risking diminishing returns by churning out nearly identical albums three times over now, but as long as life continues to stink every now and again, they won’t be lacking for material.
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// Notes from the Road
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