Wussy (Self-Titled New Album)

21Mar09

(Kenny writing)

Wussy, the self-titled new album by what is my favorite currently active band in the world, is certainly their third best of three albums.   The worst album by a great band in its prime is a fine thing, and there are enough good songs and unique sounds on this one that it remains highly recommended to folks who came up on 1980s Amerindie, or wish they did.  But if (like most of the world) you haven’t heard the band previously, start with one of the first two.

The band’s debut, Funeral Dress, focuses on songwriting and the establishment of a fuzzy undertow.  It’s virtues are those of its best song, “Soak It Up,” which takes a perfectly lovely and straightforward melody and sets it to a fuzzy bottom which threatens to overwhelm it until the melody and the fuzz reach a truce (though not a resolution) at the end.  So far so Velvet Underground.  What makes the bigger and better then 1000 others is the genuinely surprising lyric hooked around the sweet-voiced woman’s “I never thought I’d drive this far without a gun.”  The song is either about taking the blame for a break up or choosing, finally (and probably for good reasons), to let down your guard a little; either way the mixed emotions are perfectly matched to the mixed soundscape.  Even if this isn’t the first time you’ve encountered the musical idea, it’s still a top notch expression of it.  Connoseurs of fuzz pop should start here.

Left For Dead is something more dramatic and a serious candidate for my album of the decade.  The only of Wussy’s three albums that focuses on one songwriter — the other two split time equally between Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver (formerly of the Ass Ponys) — it introduces a major new perspective within the fuzz pop genre.  I’ve already written about the themes in Left For Dead here.  For the moment what I want to add about the album is that on it Lisa Walker emerges as one of the great bad singers of rock and roll history, a sweet-voice full of pops, cracks, off notes, and struggle to be heard above the sonic tide.  There are decades of tradition for male voices without technical prowess to do this, and some noteworthy female shriekers, but this is Stevie Nicks or Joni Mitchell with an inconsistent relation to tone, and Walker’s personality is so specific, so forceful and intelligent, that you root for her every single note.  This album is recommended to people for whom personal concept, rather then hook quality, is what brings you to repeat listening of your favorite music.

So while it would have been hard for the band to impress me as much the third time out, I’m pleased to describe the very real virtues of another fine pop album.  The main innovation, bandwise, is that Lisa and Chuck seem to be singing together and in complement to each other more; certainly this is album where the vocalists combine on choruses and bridges time and again, so that actual happy relationship songs like “Happiness Bleeds” (oh yes it is — although ambivalent, that title is not ironic) and “Maglite” are actually coming from both voices in concert.  (The most striking vocal collaborations on the two previous albums are actually bickering songs:  “Airborne” on Funeral Dress and “Whatshisname” on Left For Dead.

And the band’s virtues as phrasemakers are strong as ever:

You’re off in outer space, I’m here on earth
On any given day the order is reverse.
(from “Magic Words”)

Mother-daughter banquet at the Bethel Baptist Church
You forgot her.  That was bad, but I did something worse.
(from a song brilliantly titled “This Will Not End Well,” and as any honest person who grew up in a New York synagogue can tell you, not requiring any knowledge of Appalachian mountain Baptists)

 The note you left me on the door said “go away, I am sleeping”
And so I leave, but I believe that you’ve been entertaining someone else
So I do what I think I’m supposed to and I entertain myself.
(from “Death By Misadventure”)

There were never devils living under the stairs,
There were never angels in your grandmother’s hair
There has never been another that I could compare.
(From “Happiness Bleeds”)

(and, in conclusion)
A story we could live to tell
(the conclusion of “Las Vegas” and the end of the album)

For a band whose albums have been called Funeral Dress and Left for Dead, living to tell is no small accomplishment.  In the end the appeal of lyrics like these is going to be to middle-aged marrieds like me — in fact, like their immediate predecessor, Amy Rigby (now also collaborating with a lover), but with a more well-defined and unusual soundscape, Wussy are alt country songwriters with indie rock sonics and ambitions.  Wussy can’t change the world because the young don’t understand why middle-aged marrieds settle (we wouldn’t have when we were young either) and because there isn’t much of an outside — a depression or a war — to their social landscape, at least not as of now.  But if enough of us middle-aged marrieds will admit how much our emotional landscapes sound like Wussy, maybe they’ll get popular enough to quit their day jobs.

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