Sure the humble unit deserves better recognition, perhaps on the level attained by poppier San Francisco coed combo, Imperial Teen, who sell in the higher thousands. Reluctantly, Wussy instead vie for attention with similarly assimilated bands ranging from the artily plaintive High Water Marks to the enchantingly twee Chalets. Yet much like (one-quarter female) hometown heroes, the Heartless Bastards, a great camaraderie is shared by Cleaver’s eager crew, despite the low-rent subterranean lifestyle afforded, or afflicting, perennial indie-dom.
But don’t go feeling too sorry for the undervalued group since its members don’t lack decent outside employment. Cleaver’s proud to be a longtime mason in his other life while the remaining three eke out fair livings in education and the food industry. And several respected scribes, such as the ubiquitous Robert Christgau, have shown affection for and devotion to the multitasking voyagers needy for small hotel luxuries this wet evening in north Jersey as their month-long tour nears close.
The lithesome over-thirty gang go back-jack do-it-again for beefed-up ’07 long-player, Left For Dead (Shake It Records), laying on s’more dusky satire but always remembering to tersely bring out the noise. One-upping the bitterly dire referencing of ‘05s equally ominous titular titillation, Funeral Dress, the oft-times better Left For Dead’s roughhewn boogie down rockers, employed judiciously in concert, confidently counterbalance refreshingly provocative Appalachian folk-acoustic retreats.
At Maxwells in Hoboken this March, the burly, longhaired, scraggly-bearded Cleaver looks like Jerry Garcia on a bender, contrasting frail cutesy-faced co-leader, Lisa Walker, whose vivacious personality helped make her the focal point.
“Fifty and beyond I’m gonna look like a tramp,” the 48-year-old Cleaver jokingly guffaws over macaroni-and-cheese dinner beforehand.
He confides, “I don’t particularly like being the front person. I like playing guitar and composing. She’s easier to look at. That may sound chauvinistic, but it’s true.”
Live, his inelastic voice has a huskier masculinity, and hers, a deeper emotional resonance. Their repertoire gets executed abrasively louder, but not at the expense of persuasive melodic eloquence. Cleaver’s a right-staged corner-bound dark figure sparking spontaneous riffs while fellow singer-guitarist Walker’s the surprisingly assured central focus. Forming the resolute rhythmic backbone are efficient bassist Mark Messerly and athletic drummer Dawn Burman.
Wearing a fancy cheaply-bought leather-billed wool-topped corduroy-backed cap, Cleaver, retired leader of admirable major-labeled Americana band, the Ass Ponys, began doing solo dates a few years back, convincing Walker (whom he met “in passing”) to sing along at local venues. He’d write lyrics down for Walker during rehearsal and felt the onstage interplay “sounded wonderful.”
“We were a two-piece. Then we found Mark,” Cleaver recalls. “At our first few shows, we told people even though we’re quiet now, we’re gonna be loud one of these days.”
Accordingly, the zealous threesome learned as they went, acquiring sturdy stick-handler Burman to fill out and add punch up the impulsive Cleaver-Walker originals.
“I’m not really a lead guitarist. And Mark never played bass,” Cleaver insists. “It was learn as you go. Lisa and Dawn had never been in a band. We sucked for a long time and got better. I like that. The Ass Ponys weren’t any good at first. You get better. There’s an element of surprise.”
Undeniably, Cincinnati’s incestuous underground scene, conducive to moonlighting musicians setting up ancillary collectives, also befits Cleaver and Walker. They sometimes play out under the alias of Appalachian Cancer. Moreover, Walker’s on one record by Chi-town folk-pop band, the Haywards, and sidelines in “super duper side project,” the Evil Chauncers.
“There’s soul to the North, bluegrass and Country to the South,” Cleaver adds. “We don’t have to be cool. Observing the hipster trends for the last two years, what’s cool changes and quickly falls out of fashion. Cool bands mostly snub us, but then fade away.”
“We’re right near the Mason-Dixon Line and are closer to the economically depressed recession,” Walker chirps in.
Though Walker’s father had a nylon-string Classical guitar she learned Dylan-composed Peter Paul & Mary songs on, the then-teenaged lass never picked up an electric 6-string. Notwithstanding constant practice working out chord arrangements a decade thereafter, she daringly performed in front of small crowds before being totally ready, which may’ve “scared the shit” out of her, but over time led to greater sonic development.
Burman interjects, “I have to say when I didn’t know how to play drums, it was humiliatingly awful. At least I had three people in front of me. This was Lisa’s first band and she’s learning onstage in the center of it all.”
Walker chimes in, “Chuck always said if people threw shit at us, he’d block it. But someone threw a fish at him one time.”
“Yeah,” Cleaver smirks. “Opening for (noise-rock Industrialists) Jesus Lizard, they hit me full-on. I guess they were gonna save it for David Yow. But they got this frozen fish from the market – it was heavy – and it hit me right in the chest.”
Nevertheless, Cleaver points towards his band mates then proudly proclaims, “These people have passion. I don’t wanna play with guys who could do all the licks. That doesn’t interest me. I appreciate that in other bands. Most bands we play with are more musically proficient. But they can’t bring across our melodic sense. They’re not gonna beat us at writing. We’re good goddamn writers. I’m not good looking. I can’t fuckin’ sing, but motherfucker, I could write! Lisa can do both. She’s also taught me how to sing better and get on key once in awhile.”
Left For Dead’s hard-driving weather-beaten tone could best be summed up by Cleaver’s nasally snarled vindication, “What’s His Name.” On the other end, his earnestly capitulated balladic quiver suits warbled lead-in, “Trail Of Sadness” (re-addressing the debut’s whiny opening frailty, Airborne”). In between, the eruptive Walker-sung dual-axe scree, “Rigor Mortis,” and the sinisterly scarifying, “Killer Trees,” call to mind blistering Sonic Youth scrums.
Against the grainy bulk, Walker captures some of Joni Mitchell’s poetic mellifluence and much of Chrissie Hynde’s quavered love-struck urgency on the euphonious “Mayflies,” whereas fervid resplendence, “Jonah,” infrequently summons the jangled Brit-folk lucidity of Fairport Convention alumnus, Linda Thompson.
As with Funeral Dress, shrapnel-like fuzz-pedaled guitar sprees come and go alongside occasional heartland romancers. In comparison, the storm-tossed “Melody Ranch” reinvigorates the full-blown climactic tempest of “Yellow Cotton Dress” (sans xylophone, bells, and carnivalesque organ whirl).
“Wussy is my favorite thing I’ve ever done. It’s a privilege to do this,” Cleaver fervently declares.
“I started out at age 30 in the Ass Ponys,” he concludes. “I had a house and family. We’d figure costs to go out on the road and get more money each time. We milked (A & M Records) for three years. But Wussy won’t be able to go tour again for at least another year. I have to lay stone when I get home in three days – go back to work. We’ll do local gigs and hit D.C. and Baltimore, but Dawn’s a school teacher, Mark’s a music teacher, and Lisa manages a vegetarian restaurant.”
Post-set, Walker presumes they’ll get home and once again pen a few new tunes, pile ‘em together, and see which ones float.
Pragmatically, she concedes, “We’ll scratch a few up, go in with the little group, and some ideas will or won’t work. It just so happened more of mine were used this time. We do it the Beatles way – singing what we write, usually. Next time, we want to expand our range. We did a new fast one tonight, “Death By Misadventure.” But that’s not far off the beaten track.”