Wussy wonders ‘What Heaven is Like' on grungy new album
Cincinnati-bred group delves into a dirtier sound
Gil Kaufman | WCPO contributor
7:00 AM, May 14, 2018
CINCINNATI -- If you've heard about Wussy, then you know the Cincinnati-bred group is a critic's darling that has won rave reviews for its six deeply evocative studio albums.
But if you've actually listened to the band, which is fronted by ex-Ass Ponys founder Chuck Cleaver and singer Lisa Walker, then you know Wussy is one of the most captivating, eccentric rock acts in the land, known for diamond-sharp lyrics about characters living just inside the fringes.
After a trip into more melodic territory on 2016's "Forever Sounds," the group -- which also includes bass player Mark Messerly, drummer Joe Klug and pedal steel player John Erhardt -- delves into a dirtier, grungier sound on its seventh outing, "What Heaven is Like," which it will release May 18.
"That's just a product of what we listen to … some of my favorite '90s bands came out with great new releases in the past two years," Walker said, citing recent favorites from revived '90s alt-rock shoegazer acts such as Ride and Slowdive.
"I was listening to their new stuff, and I was pretty excited about going back to listen to their old ones," she added in explaining the buzz of "What Heaven is Like" songs such as "Skip." That tune brings to mind the gauzy vibe of another of Walker's '90s favorites, Lush, a comparison she chalks up to a happy, "organic" accident.
With all of the group's members taking on day jobs during the recording of the album, the 10-track "What Heaven is Like" took nearly a year to complete. The hard work paid off, though; the songs have a uniformly rich, full sound that's accompanied by what Walker said is a loose theme inspired by the beloved Charles Burns graphic novel "Black Hole."The series tells the tale of a sexually transmitted infection that causes mutations in teenagers, driving them from their homes into hiding and turning them into outcasts.
Cleaver said you can hear the influence of his all-time favorite work of graphic fiction in songs such as "One Per Customer," which opens with the lines "Don't you wish you could have been an astronaut/ Back when astronauts had more appeal?" and the driving, noisy "Cake." And, of course, "Black Hole."
" 'Tall Weeds' was the first 'Black Hole'-inspired song that we wrote," Cleaver said of the slow-rolling track about what sounds like a shame-filled flight from home. The multiple-song arc tied to the graphic novel is accompanied by two cover songs, the first non-Wussy material ever to appear on one of the band's albums. Both are based on obscure tracks that appealed to the the group's desire to paint outside the lines. They also each scratched the nagging feeling of "otherness" the group felt while recording during a year full of headlines about division, name-calling and separation.
You would be forgiven for not knowing that their Neil Young-like rumble through obscure 1980s folk singer Kath Bloom's "Oblivion" isn't an original Wussy composition. Bloom, signed to the same English label as Wussy (Damnably), performed on the same bill as the group at an English festival a few years back. Walker was nearly brought to tears at the quiet, forceful power of Bloom's idiosyncratic singing and playing.
"It was this beautiful, broken, frail song that I couldn't get out of my head," she said.
Playing it for the rest of the band in rehearsal one day, Walker, who was late with her song submission, said it sounded so eerily like a Wussy song that she immediately realized it belonged on the album alongside their originals.
The Wussy-fied take on 1970s garage rock band The Twinkeyz's "Aliens in our Midst" just felt right to Cleaver given the current climate in America.
"It seems very relevant to the times -- it's always been relevant -- but we started playing it live a year ago and it got a very real response," he said of the distorted gem. The lyrics include lines about a 5-year-old who gets beaten by his father after dressing up in his sister's clothes and the question "rich men and the poor man/ The beggar and the thief/ They all want money/ But can it buy relief?"
"The whole idea is that everyone is kind of the 'other,' " he said. "We're all kind of aliens in some weird way, and that seemed to be something that needed to be addressed."
While the aliens in the lyrics are more tongue-in-cheek than extraterrestrial (or are they?), Walker got a bit teary-eyed when talking about how fans all around the world have approached her to describe how Wussy's music makes them feel accepted -- that it makes them feel less "other."
"To me, it's a celebration of those differences and the fact that we're all aliens," Walker said. "There is no other. That's the spirit when we heard it, and that's what we took from it. Fans always tell us they felt like outcasts, but our music makes them feel like they belong.
"They've inspired us because we feel that way, too. We're making music from that place of hard truth, knowing it is reaching other people who have this same feeling like, 'I'm not good enough,' but you're every bit as good as you want to be. You should celebrate yourself every day."