Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker's back-and-forth bantering sounds a lot like the music they make in their band, Wussy. In conversation and in song, Walker's earthy alto meshes seamlessly with Cleaver's lonesome tenor twang.
But it's not at all like the full-throated country rawk Cleaver played with Ass Ponys, the Cincinnati group he led for 14 years before hooking up with singer-songwriter Walker. Wussy is more textured, preferring finesse to fury. Not so surprisingly, this didn't go over so well with fans of Cleaver's old group. "We used to tell people that eventually we're going to be a noisy rock band," says Cleaver. "We're just not that yet."
"A lot of people are fuckheads," says Walker.
"A lot of people are fuckheads," confirms Cleaver. "Early on, we were playing for five people, and four of them hated us. We always kind of thought our shit didn't stink. It's just that nobody else figured it out."
On its latest album, Left for Dead, Wussy also figured out how to sound like a real band. Multi-instrumentalist Mark Messerly — who used to perform as one-half of the folk-rock duo Messerly & Ewing — and drummer Dawn Burman round out the group. Whereas 2005's debut, Funeral Dress, was a compelling listen, Left for Dead is thoroughly irrepressible.
The band's impeccably crafted indie pop balances perky roots rock with richly nuanced arrangements, revealing new blooms with each spin. "We probably spend more time on that than anything else," says Walker.
"We try to figure out all that little stuff nobody pays any attention to," adds Cleaver.
Recorded in a proper studio this time around (Funeral Dress was made at the band's practice space in Cincinnati), Left for Dead sports a sharp, crisp mix. The CD sounds like it was caressed to life by the group — from the squalling, distortion-drenched throb of "Rigor Mortis" to the shimmering "Tiny Spiders" and all the way to the organ-guided ballad "Jonah."
The album's title comes from its most arresting track, "Mayflies." Over a jaunty melody powered by handclaps and a jangling riff, Walker recounts a biblical tale of regret. It's gothic southern pop. "That one has the Bible and bugs, which I like to put together, if I can," says Walker.
"She'd like it best if she had a Bible made of bugs," laughs Cleaver. "She's a former Baptist-college person. I'm a heathen, and she's torn."
"But we meet pretty well in the middle," she adds.
That a romantic partnership developed out of Cleaver and Walker's original musical one isn't really surprising. But both relationships nearly came to a screeching halt after Walker moved to Columbus.
"It was an odd circumstance," she recalls. "I don't want to say I came back [to Cincinnati] on a whim, because that sounds a bit too capricious. It was slightly more than that. Getting away for a couple months made me realize that I was supposed to be here. It was kind of a weird time for us. The music was kind of a break from real life."
Both Cleaver and Walker were coming off long-term relationships. The best way to heal their broken hearts, they realized, was to put all their restless energy into performing. "It became a way to help deal with stuff," says Walker.
Things have since progressed — both personally and professionally. Funeral Dress netted tons of good reviews. They drew interest to the new album and, more important, to the band's live shows. Cleaver and Walker have already written a batch of new tunes for their next album. Just don't expect them to sound like that "noisy rock band" Cleaver promised Ass Pony fans. "We're going to concentrate even more on arranging," he says. "But I don't want it to be Blood, Sweat & Tears."
And you can bet there'll be plenty of songs about death. Scanning Wussy's songs — which are stuffed with "Killer Trees," a "Trail of Sadness," and phantom limbs — you'd think it was a gloomy group. Not so, says Cleaver. "Even though things seem calculated — Left for Dead, Funeral Dress, and all this sort of stuff — it's not something we planned or thought about. It's just what comes up." So says the guy who once titled an Ass Ponys album Grim.
"What's there to sing about but life and death?" counters Walker.
This reminds Cleaver of a movie he recently saw about the Who. As Pete Townshend goes on and on about one of his lofty concept records, the camera pans to drummer Keith Moon, obliviously reading a comic book.
"Wussy lands somewhere in the middle of that," says Cleaver. "You have to recognize it's all in the stew. That high-minded stuff has a place, but stupidity has a place too. If you can combine the two and be successful at it, you have the best thing ever."