Wussy sounds so Cincinnati -- and they like that

Posted at 9:12 AM, Feb 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-24 14:09:33-05

From the opening track, “Dropping Houses,” you know this is music meant to be played loud: There’s piercing feedback, joined by pounding drums, crashing guitars and the ethereal vocals of Lisa Walker. 

The second track, “She’s Killed Hundreds,” doesn’t let up with its haunting, sonic wall of sound, this time featuring the desperate, falsetto lead vocals of Chuck Cleaver.

Welcome to the punky and rootsy sound of Wussy, one of the most critically acclaimed bands to come out of Cincinnati in the last decade, even as it still has a relatively low profile in its hometown. 

If 2015 was the year for Cincinnati band Walk the Moon to break big on the pop charts with “Shut Up and Dance,” this could be the year Wussy breaks through in the indie rock scene, judging by its thrilling new release, “Forever Sounds,” due out March 4. The band will play a pre-release gig Saturday at the Woodward Theater. 

Stories locally and nationally on Wussy usually use the phrase “cult following” to describe its fans. But as band founder Cleaver slyly said, “There are some pretty large cults so, yes, I think we are fairly well entrenched in the cult world. But we are getting more and more entrenched all the time.”

Critics Show Wussy Love 

In many ways Wussy already has broken big among critics in the alternative music world. Its previous five albums, especially 2014’s “Attica!,” received glowing reviews by the likes of Spin, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and NPR. Legendary Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called Wussy “the best band in America.” The group got some mainstream love with a “CBS This Morning” appearance in 2014.

Like many indie-rock heroes these days, Wussy does not have a major label record deal. All its releases have been on local label Shake It, launched 20 years ago by Darren Blase, owner of Northside’s Shake It Records store. Blase is one of Wussy’s biggest fans and critics.

“It’s funny, I almost never get into a Wussy album after the first listen,” Blase said. “There is so much going on there with many layers it takes time. But this is the most Wussy-esque album they have done. It really captures their live sound, which can be messy and raw.”

Blase said that for an indie label, Wussy’s albums have sold well and it’s rare that such a band has a fully realized back catalog of five albums that can fuel new fans. But he acknowledges indie label releases often build slowly because of limited promotional muscle. So, for the first time he contracted with a prestigious New York public relations firm to promote the album and, as he puts it, “just roll the dice and put everything we got into this one.” 

“From the very beginning we’ve been a word-of-mouth band,” Cleaver said. “The good thing about that is people usually stick with you. The bad thing is that it takes forever to develop any kind of a large following. We tend to pick up people one or two at a time."

Cleaver, a Clarksville, Ohio, native, founded Wussy with Walker in 2001. Cleaver originally made his mark as a critically praised songwriter in the ’90s with the Ass Ponys, another underappreciated Cincinnati band that received national exposure with two albums on A&M.

The Cleaver-Walker team immediately became a songwriting force. They had a wonderful ability to take mundane commonplace moments of life and relationships and turn them into epic anthems of humor and angst, amid an atmospheric musical palate of crashing guitars and a pounding rhythm section. Cleaver and Walker trade off providing lead vocals, which adds a stylish versatility and a certain yin and yang to Wussy’s sound.

Cleaver’s urgent, and often weary, high-pitched vocals are counterpoint to Walker’s angelic, flirty moods. 

“Two writers make it so much easier,” Cleaver said about the collaboration. “One of us always has something in the works. It takes the pressure off. We recorded 16 songs for this record but eliminated things one by one. We were very conscious about the sound and feel of the record and how it moved.”

New Release Short But Sweet 

Indeed, part of the strength of “Forever Sounds” is its compactness with 10 songs in 36 minutes.

“For a change we can play the whole album in our concert in one set,” said Cleaver.

Even more than past albums, there is a visceral, thickly textured sonic sound heightened by vocals often mixed in volume equal to the music.

“It doesn’t hurt for people sometimes to have to look at the lyric sheet,” said Cleaver. “We wanted to make it more like we sound live and what we hear in our heads. We wanted a rock record rather than a pop record.”

Wussy recorded the album under the auspices of Afghan Whigs’ member John Curley at his Ultrasuede studio in Northside. Curley brought in co-producers John Hoffman and Jerri Queen, both members of the Cincinnati band Vacation. Cleaver credits their punk sensibilities with helping to make an edgier, adventuresome album.

The songwriting is as sharp as ever, ranging from bliss to angst with Walker’s standout opening track “Dropping Houses,” a cathartic song about the end of a tortured relationship with, yes, that “Wizard of Oz” imagery.

Head-bangers will take delight in Cleaver’s “Sidewalk Sale,” a pounding anthem that assures us repeatedly, “It’ll be all right.” “Better Days,” one of the rare songs where Walker and Cleaver trade vocals, is a glorious slow burn ballad.

'Nobody's Getting Any Younger' 

The band has more of a collaborative feel now with a solidified lineup that has been in place for five years, featuring bassist Mark Messerly, drummer Joe Klug and pedal steel player John Erhardt, who played with Cleaver in Ass Ponys.

Cleaver has no illusions about some sort of fame and fortune coming from the new album, noting the band will give its best shot at promotion with a tour on and off through summer.

“The reality of our situation is nobody’s getting any younger. I’m pushing 60, so it’s not as easy as it used to be,” he said. 

This spring Wussy will play its first gigs as a band in Europe, where one Dutch blogger has already dubbed them “Ohio roots drone rockers.”

It’s a description Cleaver accepts; he wears his heartland sensibilities proudly and figures it somehow defines the band, noting they have never thought of relocating to a music mecca such as New York or Los Angeles.

“No, we live in Cincinnati. That’s where we are from,” he said. “We have pretty strong ties here. That’s what we write about for the most part. I think our stuff sounds like we are from here. And we like where we are from.”

9 p.m. Saturday
Woodward Theater, 1404 Main St., Over-the-Rhine
$15 advance, $20 day of show