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Entries in Wussy (7)


Wussy's Attica: track by track

Having told you repeatedly of the wonders of Wussy, I've been feeling oddly reticent about writing at more length about their latest album Attica. There's certainly a lot to say, but a lot has already been said - and said pretty well. The band may not have the most numerous fanbase in rock but they certainly have one that is thoughtful and articulate.

Exhibit A in making that case has to be an impressive essay by Charles Taylor in the LA Review Of Books, which convincingly locates Wussy's work within a broader and resonant take on life at a certain age in the USA of 2014. I'm going to focus on Attica's music rather than Wussy's wider positioning, but will take a quote from Taylor as a starting point for some song-by-song comments:

Wussy approach rock and roll as people who are past the age when they look to the music for salvation or as a soundtrack for their rebellion. But because they are fans, because this music has long been their chosen vehicle for expression, they test it to see if it can still provide a kind of transcendence, or at least a way of speaking that will make sense of the life around them.

That sounds right to me: Wussy are grown-ups who make their music because that is what they want to do, not because any financial expectations require it. Unlike some bands producing their fifth full album, they're not treading water and churning out another elpee's worth of tunes in a trademark style, desperate to live up to someone else's expectations. They have the space to stretch and experiment and have fun. And they sound unmistakably like they're singing from the real world, not some rockist cocoon or genre bubble.

So what have we got?

'Teenage Wasteland' is a cracking opener: a recollection of the transcendent power of music, delivered with a powerful, lush and layered sound, all underpinned by a simple one-fingered keyboard motif. Lisa Walker's lead vocal is simply gorgeous (if a little overladen with effects in the recording?), reliving the memorable moments with both excitement and control. Chuck Cleaver's backing vocals are spot-on: the two main voices fit so well together and this song features a number of those typically Wussy moments where the harmony is saying something different from the lead, as if they're a couple talking over each other, whether in excitement or disagreement... The song is focused on The Who's 'Baba O'Reilly' from the Who's Next album, with the lyrics name-checking Pete Townsend and Keith Moon, whose

kick of the drum went off like artillery fire,

but it could be about any great rock song that really made a connection with the adolescent you:

For one short breath it sounds like the world is ending,

Exploding in space and beginning again,

So far away.

And the real triumph of 'Teenage Wasteland' is to embody such a song itself, with the power to make this cynical 50-something bounce up and down grinning like a buffoon. So why am I quibbling about the effects on the vocal? Because they mean you need to turn to the lyric sheet fully to appreciate the evocative and well-crafted words, which is always a shame in hindering full communication. I get it, but not every listener will make the effort.

Chuck Cleaver's 'Rainbows & Butterflies' is next up. Grabbing you by the lapels, thrashier, noisy guitars, more distortion. It's a love song of strength and passion, where the conventional romantic imagery of the hookline is shot through with something darker, and borderline psychotic:

I'm gonna suck you, until the poison comes out.

I wanna sway you, if you're ever in doubt.

You'd be flattered to receive a Valentine's card from this character, but you might also consider changing the locks. The performance is tight and convincing and the song only just tops 3 minutes: punk lives, in both the discipline and attack.

'Bug' maintains the mood, introduced by a burst of studio chat and noise before the crunching guitars start up again, at a slower tempo, but just as relentless. Co-written by Cleaver and Walker, with Lisa taking the lead vocal, it's a song of obsession, if not quite love:

You're the drink, you're the drug,

You're the bug that's alive inside of me.

Excellent sequencing then takes us to the light and sprightly 'North Sea Girls', another of Lisa's songs, which first appeared on last year's Wussy Duo EP. It seems to be a holiday postcard from the European tour she had done with Chuck the previous autumn. In that context the song's arresting opening couplet is less bizarre than it might seem:

Today we gather werewolves

And storm the castle doors.

The other act on the tour was American Werewolf Academy and you can imagine them being rounded up, tired and hungover, for a sightseeing trip before the evening's gig. The song has a chiming crystalline quality from massed (but tightly controlled) guitars and keyboards, the pedal steel evoking shoreline gulls. As well as a description of new sights, it's an encouragement of new experiences:

Just go in, just go in,

Like it's summertime.

The last track on what will be side one of (hurrah!) a forthcoming vinyl release is Chuck's 'Acetylene'. It opens prettily with a solo fingerpicked guitar before diverting somewhere darker. Nora Barton's cello and the long sustained guitar tones, hovering on the edge of feedback, underscore a sad plea for a redeeming love which seems unlikely to materialise. Sweetly sung and a well-wrought arrangement.

'To The Lightning' lifts the energy levels at the start of the second side, with soaring vocals, chiming guitars, crashing drums - and even a theramin in the mix. Lyrically it's far from straightforward: there seems to be a relationship breaking up, with the singer embracing the power of a thunderstorm, finding the energy to move on. But what are we to make of Lisa's parallel narrative about 'Monica' inviting her to a meeting of Job's Daughters,

But hey I don't think I'll be there?

I hadn't heard of Job's Daughters before. Apparently it is an organisation for the young daughters of Freemasons, dedicated to good works. And there is a version of its emblem featuring as the artwork on the Attica CD. (It doesn't actually say Wussy or Attica anywhere, so this is what you need to look for if you mislay it...)

A traumatic experience in Lisa or Chuck's youth - who knows? It's always nice to have something inexplicable buried in a lyric, when the overall song works as well as this one does. There's definitely a strong internal logic at work, as it resolves in a gentle and lovely coda, the two voices coming together, apparently accepting their parting:

Bide your time

And when the time arises

Rise and shine 

And let me go.

The next track 'Halloween' holds that calm and reflective mood. It may well be my favourite song on an album with some strong contenders for that title. There's a lovely arrangement, blending accordion and pedal steel and mandolin, for a song that is a photo-sharp picture of a dreamlike recollection - which is not a straightforward trick to pull off. It references Neil Young's 'Sugar Mountain' and echoes that song's wry nostalgia and warmth. Despite its title, it seems to be set on an Ash Wednesday, the morning after a Mardi Gras, suggested in an immediately engaging opening (replete with a nod to Kris Kristofferson):

We're lost in the town, wiping fog out of our eyes,

A Wednesday morning coming down.

You're last out the door, trying to piece together

All the shit you saw the night before.

It's beautifully done.

Then the mic passes back to Chuck for 'Gene, I Dream', a fine portrait of a troubled relationship and a yearning for a fresh start, with added interest from the twist that it is not entirely clear who is who amongst the narrator, 'Gene' and the couple being described. Anyway, the chorus links with an upbeat arrangement to send you out feeling hopeful, even if the hopes will not ultimately come good:

Gene, I dream that life outside of here

Is so much more amazing

Than either one of us could ever imagine.

Next up is the title track, 'Attica!', the exclamation mark indicating that the word is being shouted in the street. I gather this is a reference to the film Dog Day Afternoon, where this word is indeed shouted during a bank robbery that goes wrong, and is referring in turn to the Attica prison riot in New York in 1971 which left 43 people dead. Sadly, however, I have not seen the film so am not the best person to steer you through the lyric. I'll get back to you when I've caught up... Anyway, nicely sung by Lisa and another carefully layered arrangement, featuring - I think - ebowed guitar.

On to 'Home', the penultimate track. Nice enough, but one of the lesser songs on the record, I'd say. Well played and sung and the theme of optimism through adversity chimes with much of the rest of the set, but nothing really to stand out, musically or lyrically.

Which gives 'Beautiful' even more force, I guess. This is one of Cleaver's very best, a bitter-sweet reflection on a failed relationship and the faults of a younger self. There's a soaring melody with intertwined voices ending in a glorious guitar solo, surging against a repeated keyboard pattern and rolling bass. There's a determined chirpiness in some of the lyrics and the symbol of a house fire, inevitably undercut by regret:

Our everyday attire, we lost it in the fire.

Now we're sifting through the cinders and the ashes.

Searching for a sign, the remains of yours and mine,

Suspecting all along

We may have saved it if we'd only taken time.

(A nice echo there of the yours and mine piles of household effects assembled by the warring protagonists of the Wussy classic 'Airborne'.) And as well as tension and beauty we have a final mystery: what exactly are we to make of the hookline?

I'm not the monster that I once was: 20 years ago I was more beautiful than I am today.

We are left pondering the meaning of beauty as the final chords fade: a bonus philosophical coda. Can't the appreciation of former monsterhood add to beauty, counterbalancing the odd grey hair or wrinkle? I'd like to think so, but maybe the song's narrators think otherwise.

Anyway, eleven songs that are well repaying repeated listenings: there's a lot of depth in the writing and immense skill and care in the way that the music has been put together. I am conscious that I haven't said much to single out contributions from bassist Mark Messerly, drummer Joe Klug and pedal steel man John Erhardt - that's mainly because they're all mostly interested in cohesion and collective sound, and contribute on a range of other instruments too. They all play splendidly, but this is very much a band album, with no individual grandstanding.

And what a band - I hope they make it across the Atlantic soon.


A little more Wussy

I know I go on about them, but Wussy's Attica is already sounding like the album of the year, a couple of weeks before it has even been released.

I'll do a proper review when I've got the actual artefact – CD only, sadly, I gather from the record company – but I've been listening to the preview pretty solidly in the last few days. 'Teenage Wasteland' isn't actually my current favourite song (check out 'Halloween' for that), but it's a glorious opener and this video captures so much of what I like about the band: restrained power, noise and beauty, aching vulnerability, no grandstanding, obviously enjoying themselves

when the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart...



Wussy's Attica streaming now

Wussy's latest album, Attica, will be released next month and you can listen to it now on Bandcamp. The website of Damnably, their UK label, suggests it will be coming out on vinyl, though I haven't seen that advertised anywhere else yet.

Sounding good, so far – there's an encouraging range of noise and softer moments, with Chuck and Lisa both in excellent voice...

I started saying that I hadn't heard a killer song yet, but now 'Halloween' is definitely getting under my skin: lovely arrangement, great singing.

I'll let you know


2012: the records of the year

It was a year in which a lot of old campaigners gave a good account of themselves. In addition to those listed below, the likes of Van Morrison, John Cale, Dexys, Dr John, Kris Kristofferson and (at least in parts) Bob Dylan all made decent records with fresh ideas and little sign of the autopilot taking charge. So, a bit of a challenge for younger folk to cut through and grab their share of turntable time – but, as we'll see, some of them most definitely did...

My list for 2012 looks like this:

10. Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas. I wrote about this at length here when it first came out. I can't claim that I've played it a lot in recent months, but I remain deeply impressed. A master at work, still with engaging things to say.

9. Michael ChapmanPachyderm. A second volume of improvised instrumental music from this extraordinary guitarist. Minimal, restrained, repetitive, essentially one chord for 24 minutes (my wife just came in and asked 'is it stuck?'). But also - I would say - hypnotic and rather wonderful, like ripples on the surface of a limpid pool. Side two is a remix with some electronics added, and may be even better.

8.Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill. This was never going to win any converts, but if you're already a fan of the special noise that Neil and the Horse make together, this album is like sinking into a warm bath: inimitable guitar playing on and on against an irresistible rhythm section. The lyrics range between the casually weird ('gonna get me a hip hop haircut' etc in 'Driftin' Back'), to the spare and beautifully observed (his portrait of an aging couple in 'Ramada Inn'), to the frankly bathetic ('For The Love Of Man'). But Neil is not a reflector or an editor and we've learnt over the years to go with the flow and relish the ragged as well as the glorious. (A busy year for him and the Horse with Americana also released: this straight-faced collection of cranked-up folk chestnuts has its longeurs, but a lot of it is excellent – 'Oh Susannah' in particular.)

7. Cheek Mountain Thief, Cheek Mountain Thief. An intriguing and inventive album that repays repeated listening. Mike Lindsay, the frontman from Tunng, has relocated to Iceland and recorded there with a range of local musicians. Some densely layered arrangements, featuring credits for everything from marimbas to 'Space Echo Guitar and Vintage Noise', all wedded to the sense of fun and feel for a twisted hookline that Tunng aficionados will recognise and relish.

6. Hiss Golden Messenger, Poor Moon. HGM were one of the year's best discoveries for me, via the compilation which follows in this list. I have no idea where the band name comes from but the shifting mix of players Michael Taylor and Scott Hirsch put together do some lovely things. Lush and lovely Americana, nicely played and sung, with some edgy turns ('Jesus Shot Me In The Head' anyone?). They also put out a fine out-takes set recently, Lord I Love The Rain, ahead of their next 'proper' album due next spring.

5. Various Artists, Oh Michael, Look What You've Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman. The best tribute albums avoid an over-reverential approach to the material, fit together as an integrated listening experience and introduce you to some people you haven't heard before. Oh Michael... fits that bill perfectly, with an extraordinary mix of performers bringing their own distinctive styles to Chapman's strong but underexposed songs. Hiss Golden Messenger's 'Fennario' is one stand-out and this set also sent me out to learn more of Meg Baird and Black Twig Pickers, seeing both play great shows in Brighton this year. Other contributors include Thurston Moore and Lucinda Williams, both in fine voice here, as are the excellent Two Wings...

4. Two Wings, Love's Spring. ...who also put out a brilliant record of their own this year. I've already put them in my 'gigs of the year' list and the record has the added benefits of fuller arrangements, including brass, and a beautiful Hanna Tuulikki sleeve. It is a strikingly confident and assured debut, with strong ensemble playing and soaring harmonies and vocal swoops which repeatedly raise hairs on your neck.

3. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball. Less prominent in others' end-of-year lists than I would have expected, given Bruce's towering presence as the greatest big-stage performer, and one of the few rock performers with something coherent and interesting to say about the state of the world. I would say this bears comparison with anything he's released in the last 30 years, striking in its musical range and obvious passion. Not perfect, of course, as I noted here, but not many could hold their own against this.

2. Patti Smith, Banga. But Patti certainly can. A comparable self-belief and open-hearted commitment to her work; a comparable joy in communion with her audience - it would surprise some who can't see past her self-conscious reverence for her intellectual forebears to share the passion and pleasure she brings to a sing-a-long 'People Have The Power' in concert. Patti is another writer who doesn't always take time to amend and refine her lyrics and there are some clumsy lines here (particularly on 'April Fool' and 'This Is The Girl'). But she is in better voice than ever, the musicianship and arrangements are superb, and the best songs ('Amerigo', 'Banga', 'Constantine's Dream') are spine-tingling.

 1. Wussy, Buckeye. Regular readers will no doubt think I have raved enough about Wussy already, but, having discovered them seven years into their career, there has been a lot to catch up with and be impressed by. Buckeye, their first release in the UK, is the ideal place to start, bringing together some of the strongest songs in their oeuvre, from 2005's  Funeral Dress to 2012's Strawberry. In practice, I haven't been playing Buckeye itself all that much, having gone back and got all its predecessors... but a release that features the two very best songs I heard for the first time this year – 'Airborne' and 'Motorcycle' – has to be a strong contender for the top slot. And when the latest songs, like 'Grand Champion Steer' and 'Asteroids', are so good it's clear that 'Best of 2012' is an entirely reasonable conclusion. Brain, power, passion; thrashed guitars and yearning harmonies; a fascinating creative dynamic between the two singer-songwriters – what more could the discerning rock fan of a certain age look for?

So, those are my favourites. A final mention for Can's The Lost Tapes as clear winner of the archive release of the year: a beautifully packaged 3 CD set packed full of excavated treasures. I felt much like when first listening to Dylan's Bootleg Series Vols 1-3: if this was the only release of theirs to survive, you'd still be entirely clear that you were in the presence of real talent and significance...

I've said before that I haven't bought enough singles this year to have a proper best list. Dylan's 'Duquesne Whistle' would probably be at #3, with Wussy's fine take on 'Breakfast In Bed' at #2. But the 7" which has given me the most pleasure this year is Art Is Hard Record's Family Portrait split EP, featuring Gum's irresistible 'Cherryade'.


Wussy Day

'Chuck thinks that if something doesn't sound right you should stomp on a distortion pedal and make it ten times louder,' explains Wussy's Lisa Walker.

'Sometimes it works...' is the response from her partner in crime, Chuck Cleaver.

And he's right. The pair blend gorgeous melodies and great lyrics with a fine propensity for squalling noise. This, for me, is what rock & roll is supposed to be all about: a passionate racket veined with vision and beauty.

I'd turned up at Brixton's Windmill expecting the full five piece line-up of the band but found that only the two singer-songwriters had made the trip from Cincinnati. But that was never going to be a cue for some sort of laidback, acoustic performance...

In fact, it was an advantage in this intimate venue. The sound guys seemed to be having trouble getting the vocals loud enough over the bass and drums of openers Slowgun and then American Werewolf Academy - in the latter's set, even a harmonica blasting into frontman Aaron Thedford's vocal mic was barely audible. I would have hated for Wussy's wondrous words and harmonies to have gone the same way. But I needn't have worried: they come through loud and clear.

The two of them are here promoting a European-only compilation, Buckeye, drawn from four or five releases across the Atlantic over the last seven years, and there is something of a greatest hits feel to their set, with a whole clutch of songs jammed into their hour or so, any one of which would be a career highlight for most other songwriters: 'Airborne', 'Crooked', 'Maglite', 'Grand Champion Steer', 'Pulverized'... Classic songs just keep on coming.

There's a fascinating chemistry between the duo. Walker is keen to emphasise that they're no longer a couple offstage. 'But there's no real hate,' adds Cleaver, prompting the response: 'I'm not so sure...'

Lisa spends the set alternately grimacing at unexpected musical interventions and beaming at some of the many points when the big man undoubtedly pulls it off. The prickly intimacy in the way their voices and guitars entwine is something special and testifies to deep familiarity with each other's approach. 'We formed the band about 10 years ago,' says Walker. 'I was just an embryo; Chuck was already 50.

This isn't supposed to be slick music and when Lisa apologises for something that was rougher than she'd have liked, a guy in the audience shouts 'Remember Neil Young: ragged glory'. That's not a bad analogy: Wussy have a similar inclination to just go for it in performance and see what comes out; and a similar ability to veer between muscle and bruised vulnerability. As well as songs that stand up in that sort of exalted company.

I'm taken again tonight by the subtlety and beauty of many of those songs, alongside the energy and drive. 'Motorcycle' in particular gets its hooks in my brain, drawing on both the physical (small town, humdrum life) and the spiritual (flashes of the Rapture) to build the power of its yearning for escape:

16 motorcycles just today.

And if they offered I would take it:

A free ride out of this place.

And I would sit right on the back

Without a helmet on,

One day you'll see.

There's something very special going on here: do catch the tour if you can, and give the records a try.

Meanwhile, they're clearly thrilled to be in London and relishing some local experiences, though the double decker buses are not entirely suited to Chuck's ample frame... 'and they smell funny,' he added in a disappointed tone. 'They only smell funny,' came the immediate rejoinder, 'because of your bag of curry'.

A non-couple, but joined at the hip.