[22 March 2012]
The 12th year of the 21st Century finds the Cincinatti rock phenomenon known as Wussy moving into their second decade as a band. Looking back, their first 10 years can be looked upon as a paradigm for the progression of a successful band: a string of solid releases that retains its core singing and songwriting bedrock while playing increasing larger rooms to greater acclaim. It seems easy, but few bands of late have managed to achieve their station with such modest grace. Strawberry is the fourth full-length from Wussy, released on the heels of a track-for-track acoustic revisitation of their amazing debut Funeral Dress. Recorded, as is their norm, with their longtime engineer John Curley at his Ultrasuede Studios, Strawberry manages to expand their sound significantly while still sounding like the same old Wussy.
The presence of Joe Klug in the co-producer’s chair as well as Wussy drum throne may have something to do with it. Klug replaced original drummer Dawn Burman in early 2009, a move that shifted the band in subtle but significant fashion from Velvet Underground inspired to Yo La Tengo inflected. Songwriting core Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver had made plain their desire to expand the arrangements on the new Wussy material and from the opening “Asteroid”, its obvious the plan has been set in motion. Wussy have done nothing to fix what isn’t broken, but slightly bigger choruses and simmering bridges matched with layered vocals and therimin drones go a long way towards making Strawberry the finest Wussy record to date.
At first listen, the change can be a bit jarring. The organ and vocal layering on the opening tracks rush by in short order, Walker taking the lead on “Asteroid” and Cleaver following with the annoyingly catchy “Pulverized”. A promising start, but four tracks in is when the Strawberry party really gets started. Started with a jagged guitar riff, “Chicken” takes a spartan drum and single-note keyboard line and sets you up nicely for Walker to rock it up in pronounced fashion. Blessed with a whiskey-kissed voice combining the best parts of fellow Buckeye Chrissie Hynde and Bettie Serveert singer Carol Van Dyk, Lisa Walker may be the band’s not-so secret weapon. Equal parts silk and leather, Walker has few equals in the indie rock underground.
Her partner (in vocals and in life) in Wussy is an altogether different proposition. Chuck Cleaver is the former Ass Pony who inadvertently set Wussy in motion when he drafted Walker into service for his first solo gig following the demise of the much-missed quintet. The bastard son of Tiny Tim and John Prine (with maybe a touch of the Capt. Lou Albano for good measure), it takes a second to reconcile Cleaver’s high tenor with his grizzly bear frame, but it all makes perfect sense when it propels surrealist snapshots like Grand Champion Steer, whose starkly beautiful closing “me, I was off weaving life out of wishes and air” will melt even the hardest of hearts. The track fights “Wrist Rocket” for his best song on Strawberry and would very possibly be considered the best in show here, were it not for the closing “Little Miami”, a track which may very well be the best Wussy offering to date. Sung entirely by Walker, the track is also the longest, simmering past the six minute mark before fading twinkling into the virtual lead out.
While Cleaver and Walker are engaging egalitarian when it comes to singing lead, it is the shared vocals on Strawberry tracks like “Pizza King” and “Fly, Fly, Fly” that speak to the core of the Wussy sound. The interplay with Klug and bassist/keysman Mark Messerly says volumes of the fact that Wussy is a weird and wonderful band with a capital B. Strawberry distils down the best parts of all the parties involved to make their first truly classic record, one that will be talked about at length this year and for many more to come.