The rise of Wussy over the past 11 years may ultimately stand as one of the most improbable yet inevitable success stories in Cincinnati music history.
In those thrilling pre-Wussy days of yesteryear, the initial rush of Chuck Cleaver’s previous band, Ass Ponys, in the late ’80s and early ’90s was no surprise, but the band’s strangely quiet denouement, whether precipitated by malfeasance or benign neglect, bordered on a criminal act. When frontman Cleaver finally returned with new writing (and, then, romantic) partner Lisa Walker in the early part of the new millennium, the pair was dichotomy personified; tangible yet ephemeral, powerful yet tender, fierce yet sedate, harmonic yet dissonant, they invested Wussy with a spectacular bi-polarity, a state of being perhaps best described as manic impressive.
The engine that powered Wussy was just as head-scratchingly wonderful. Guitarist Mark Messerly was learning to play bass, and music fan Dawn Burman was learning to play drums — his six-string approach to four strings and her Maureen Tucker primitivism were the perfect skewed foil for the Midwestern Glamericana Folk anthems and odes that Cleaver and Walker were concocting seemingly at will, beginning with the magnificent debut, 2005’s Funeral Dress.
After two more brilliant and acclaimed albums — 2007’s Left for Dead and 2009’s Wussy — not to mention an uncanny knack for interspersing great shows with self-described disasters and the end of Cleaver and Walker as a couple (which could have Buckingham/Nicks-ed the whole shooting match), Burman relocated to Texas which made way for Joe Klug, whose impeccable and thunderous drum skills ushered in a new chapter in the Wussy saga. Just as the band should have exploded into an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle of unrecognizable shards, 2011’s Strawberry found Wussy ascending to new heights with cohesive purpose and psychedelic abandon, while never forgetting the fundamental beauty and heartbreaking intensity that shaped and defined its earliest work.
With 2014’s Attica!, Ass Ponys guitarist John Erhardt went from touring steel-pedalist to full-fledged member, and his arrival inspired (or caused) a clattering, noisy evocation of the Psych Folk strum and twang Wussy had crashed headlong into on Strawberry.
Two years later, Wussy’s new album, Forever Sounds, amplifies the noise of Attica! to a gorgeous din that soars and slams like Phil Spector and Brian Eno collaborating on the Berlin Wall of Sound. If Attica! was the sound of a block party teetering on the edge of chaos, Forever Sounds is that same party after local authorities gave up and called in the National Guard. Visceral, loud and lysergically compelling, Forever Sounds is Attica! on steroids and peyote buttons.
Forever Sounds announces its arrival with the squalling feedback and tribal drumming of the album’s first single “Dropping Houses,” coming up first in the track order like every good Motown release. The notable difference in the sonic presentation on Forever Sounds is that the vocals are mixed at near parity with the music, only occasionally rising above the holy din that Wussy has crafted. As a result, Wussy more acutely resembles the R.E.M. comparisons that cropped up in early reviews, as Cleaver and Walker allow their voices and insightful lyrics to be obscured and transformed into a musical texture.
While that might seem off-putting, particularly to fans of the first three Wussy albums, it has the interesting effect of engaging the listener to an even greater extent in absorbing Forever Sounds, leaning in to make sure they heard what they think they heard. There is a discernible Crazy Horse desperation in the swirling tumult of “She’s Killed Hundreds,” and a similar soundscape for the powerful and melancholic balladry of “Donny’s Death Scene” and “Hello, I’m a Ghost,” while “Gone” marches along as forcefully as a Celtic funeral procession with a phalanx of crashing electric guitars supplanting the bagpipes.
Like every great Wussy album (which, so far, has been all of them), some of Forever Sounds’ most impactful moments are contained in the calm between storms. “Better Days” vibrates on a similar wavelength as Captain Beefheart’s glorious “My Head is My Only House Unless It Rains,” and “Majestic-12” is classic Walker introspection, except for the undercurrent of feedback that threatens to erupt like an unstable volcano but never does. Forever Sounds ends with the gently compelling “My Parade,” a quiet piano ballad that eases into a noisier but still restrained version of the ecstatic havoc that preceded it.
Forever Sounds is solid evidence that Wussy remains fully engaged in advancing its creative energies by any means necessary without abandoning the core values that have gotten it six-albums deep into a catalog that should stretch well into an even brighter future.
FOREVER SOUNDS is scheduled for release March 4 and can be pre-ordered here. A limited-edition, colored-vinyl 7-inch single featuring "Dropping Houses" and non-LP track "Folk Night at Fucky's" is available from Shake It Records (in store or here) while they last.