For a brief moment in the mid 1980s, I was entranced with a number of Southern alternative rockers who were following in the seminal footsteps of REM. Most of them were a bit more sonically inclined then the band that put Athens, Georgia on the map. Groups like the DB’s, Pylon, Guadalcanal Diary, and Fetchin’ Bones were just edgy enough to capture my interest. But as REM started adding more and more feedback to their studio and live performances, it all got old, and I moved on to Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth.
The Cincinnati band Wussy reminds me a lot of those Southern groups who were dancing on the precipice of noise legend. Wussy features ex-Ass Pony’s guitarist Chuck Cleaver, Lisa Walker on vocals, organ, and guitars, multi-instrumentalist Mark Messerly, and Dawn Burman on drums. For the most part, this album is an extremely subdued, acoustically oriented effort with some moments of highly intense guitar leads and noise acting as counter-metaphors to the malaise and abandonment found in the lyrics.
The album as a whole takes a few listens before it smacks you with the walloping emotional impact the band intended. Funeral Dress is the anti-Nirvana, delivering tales of emotional devastation with the finesse of a fine surgeon removing your vital organs while you lay unconscious in a bathtub packed with ice.
Lisa Walker’s vocals bring to mind Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star. Sandoval certainly has a wider range and is more experimental, but Walker compliments the disparate elements of Wussy’s music extremely well, modulating between both very bright and very dark tones, much like Sandoval. Walker’s job as front woman for the band must be a challenging one. Cleaver’s guitar work threatens to walk away with the show at times, as does Messerly. But Walker is clearly in control, and she guides the group through each blackened tunnel it navigates, leading it to the eventual light on the other end.
The group founders a bit with the addition of Burman as drummer. According to the press notices, Burman is a friend/fan of Cleaver who learned drums specifically to be a part of this group. While she is competent, Burman doesn’t yet possess the control to keep her beat subtle. The group placed Burman’s drums as far back in the mix as they dared, yet the punchy, slightly ham-fisted back beat is more apparent than it should be.
Still, Wussy provides an extraordinary experience for the listener. It is textured with sometimes beautifully sonic soundscapes which grab you by the ears and pull you into the tortured worlds they paint. And unlike their predecessors, Wussy has created its own sound, one that is influenced by legends yet doesn’t copy them chord for chord. “Funeral Dress” stands on its own merits, offering many musical shades of light in a genre which has nearly eaten itself alive.
There has been something of a renaissance of 1980s Southern alt. rockers lately. From what I’ve read, Pylon has reformed, and Guadalcanal Diary is occasionally drifting into gigs in both Athens and Atlanta. REM is but a ghost of itself, lost in a hazy, soft rock commercialism which betrays their roots. I suggest they all get together sometime in Cincinnati, have a beer, and enjoy an evening with the folks from Wussy. Those other bands just may remember what made them so interesting in the first place.