It’s Tuesday night at the Cake Shop, and Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker, the delightfully volatile artistic/romantic heart of Cincinnati jangle-pop quartet Wussy, are onstage, before a small but adoring crowd, discussing their available merch.
Chuck [sardonically]: “We got about 800 fuckin’ buttons.”
Lisa [cheerfully]: “I made about 1,000. It took me four nights.”
Chuck [haughtily]: ” ‘I.’ ‘I.’ Fuck you. We. We sat and watched shitty television and made them together.”
Aficionados of surly, grudgingly beautiful, self-loathing Midwestern rock are perhaps already acquainted with Chuck, he of the poorly named Ass Ponys, who, for a decade or so, trudged alongside the titans of that particular genre, especially on 2001’s grimly gorgeous (and excellently named) Lohio. Back then, you wouldn’t have figured his next project to play out on a Fleetwood Mac/Quasi/Richard and Linda Thompson are-they-or-aren’t-they-and-will-they-eventually-kill-each-other-regardless? battlefield of tough love and vivid unease.
But in 2005, the adequately named Wussy burst forth with “Airborne,” the stupendously combative leadoff track to their debut, Funeral Dress, wherein Chuck and Lisa sort of tunefully yell at each other, hating themselves for loving each other already. Lisa, easily the louder and more aggrieved of the two, barks, “And you told me that you love me/But you don’t really love me/You remind me every day/But when you’re living on a flood plain/It doesn’t take a hard rain/To wash it all away”; on “Yellow Cotton Dress,” Chuck warily retorts with “Yellow cotton dress/Is beautiful, no doubt/But it becomes a motherfucker/When you fill it out.” You’d have given ’em six months at best and prayed it didn’t end in homicide.
But the record ended with the hesitant, rapturous ballad “Don’t Leave Just Now,” and they didn’t, and four years and a couple more full-lengths later, they’re still making both music and, apparently, buttons together. Backed by a suitably wobbly rhythm section of bassist Mark Messerly and new-guy drummer Joe Klug, the heavily tattooed lovebirds of prey offer ragged serenades terrible and true at the Cake Shop, easily the closest thing to a dank Ohio basement venue on the Lower East Side, Lisa having apparently mellowed and cheered up considerably, bouncing up and down, her head nearly scraping the acoustic foam and Christmas lights affixed to the ceiling. Chuck, hirsute and bespectacled and gruff, complaining that his protruding gut is slowly turning his guitar into a “reverse dobro,” is markedly less exuberant; he perfectly fits the profile of a guy named Chuck who used to be in a band named the Ass Ponys. Lisa’s enthusiasm is hilariously incongruous; you sometimes get the feeling she’s been kidnapped by a grouchy bar band and is just rolling with it.
Their combative rapport remains, though. The show begins with “Little Paper Birds,” leadoff batter on their new, self-titled record, a soft, sweet, gauzy, country-ish ballad that evokes the lost-Americana romanticism of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s bazillion-Grammy-winning Raising Sand, Chuck and Lisa’s voices intertwined in a similarly frail double helix, their mutual hostility just a touch more cryptic these days: “I finally got your letter/And your punctuation hit me like a truck.”
But soon, they’re back to raising hell: “Sun Giant Says Hey,” from 2007’s Left for Dead, has a breezy noise-pop swing but a discordant dual-vocal clash between Chuck’s plaintive warble and Lisa’s excitable, exasperated yelps, as if they’re singing completely different songs; midway through, in a small gesture of casual camaraderie, Lisa leans down to helpfully adjust the knobs on Chuck’s guitar pedal as he bashes away. Which is not to say that she’s the docile one: Between songs, as she’s praising “awesome” opening act Doug Gillard, Chuck rolls his eyes and mutters something about people his age sounding moronic when they say the word “awesome”—she rebuts with a middle finger.
It’s dangerous, of course, to view every shred of music and banter the pair offers through the prism of a personal relationship even devout fans know absolutely nothing about—dangerous, but also fun, in a tabloid-trashy sort of way, to view every grievance, lament, and accusation as detritus from a real-life lovers’ spat, when, trust me, a Midwestern bar band has plenty of other shit to bitch about. But Wussy’s best songs have an alluring ambiguity, leaving you wondering who and/or what they’re grousing about—or if they’re grousing at all. Fast, cheap, and out of control, the ramshackle carport-garage anthem “Happiness Bleeds” begins with Chuck barking, “I remember puking down the side of a car/The cost of drinking liquor from the mouth of a jar” and other such debauched niceties, his breathless tone pitched perfectly between fond nostalgia and nightmarish regret, with Lisa moaning angelically at the margins until she joins him for the song’s climactic, cathartic chant:
La la-la la la la la-la la la la
La la-la la la la la
La la-la-la la la la
Baby, I love you