Skip to content

Unsung Guitar Heroes Wussy Nail Rust-Belt Americana on ‘Attica!’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: May 06, 2014
Label: Shake It

Over the last decade, Cincinnati garage/pop/folk practitioners Wussy have refined a winning formula. Every 15 months or so, they break from full-time jobs (stonemasonry, waitressing, special ed), record a dozen-ish songs, play some clubs, then return to their 9 to 5s. Many an indie band can claim a similar bio, but few match the songwriting consistency of former Ass Pony Chuck Cleaver and formerly unaffiliated Lisa Walker.

Simply put, Cleaver and Walker write great songs every time out. This uniformity hasn’t translated into sales, which one might blame on the curse of smart regionalism (Wussy remains as quintessentially Cincinnati as Skyline Chili) or perhaps contemporary indie’s more general disinterest in direct storytelling. Not that their craftsmanship goes unnoticed–they’ve claimed high-profile boosters like NYCTaper (where Wussy’s Manhattan visits are preserved in high-def) and Robert Christgau, who so adores the band he gave them a shout-out in his Lou Reed SPIN obit. Yet the most common designation awarded this songwriting project is “cult band,” which glosses over what they’ve accomplished on albums like Funeral Dress and Strawberry: frazzled-yet-lovely alt musicianship adorning literate-yet-plainspoken lyrics about committed-yet-tumultuous relationships. Fifth-album-in-10-years Attica! continues this rather remarkable streak.

With John Erhardt’s pedal steel (re)added to the Mark Messerly/Joe Klug rhythm section, this guitar band’s rangy Americana jostles alongside melodic punk blur and semipopular drone with the same deftness as fellow urban pastoralists Yo La Tengo. Gentle cascades of piano and accordion trade places with the Music Machine fuzz-grunt of “Rainbows and Butterflies,” the Reckoning-era R.E.M. shimmer of “To The Lightning,” or the lilting mandolin wind of Walker’s ethereal “Halloween.” Yet the most precious musical element remains the inspired vocal interplay of Walker and Cleaver, duties divided up with an egalitarian flair reminiscent of the Go-Betweens: Cleaver’s shambolic warble, Walker’s warm twang edged with hurt.

They remain delightfully kooky, promising to suck you until the poison comes out and finding metaphorical use for hydrocarbons on “Acetylene,” while “Attica!” itself references Dog Day Afternoon. Rightly adjudging that 1975 film a love story, Walker locates romantic desperation within Sonny Wortzik’s doomed attempts at raising cash for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery: “I’ll give you my last breath/ I can’t admit defeat.”

Wussy intuitively understands such fevered obsessions–as music junkies, they’ve measured their life along rock and roll’s peaks and valleys. As befits blue-collar bohemians, they’re not exactly record collectors, which indie has enough of anyway. They’re fans foremost, devotees savoring the kick of the drum lining up with the beat of your heart, to quote anthemic opener “Teenage Wasteland,” in which Walker ecstatically recalls staring into the inky swirl of Who’s Next, playing “Baba O’Riley” a thousand times a day. “We heard you, Pete!” she promises. “We heard you, Keith!” May these rock and roll believers always celebrate such Joycean epiphanies, those moments when Midwestern kids realized, “Your misery sounds so much like ours, so far away.”