If the world's top scientists entered a laboratory with the goal of concocting a rock band whose target audience consisted solely of nerdy rock critics, that band would probably end up sounding a lot like Wussy. The Cincinnati quintet has all the hallmarks of being a critical darling: an anachronistic devotion to the electric guitar; a warts-and-all sound redolent of 1980s and '90s indie-rock; even some inter-band personal drama (singer-guitarists Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker's erstwhile coupledom). Wussy's seventh album, What Heaven Is Like, is composed of unpretentious four-minute rock songs that perfectly balance effortless melodicism and noisy, mysterious murk—carrying the torch for a gritty, non-electronic indie aesthetic that's all but extinct.
To be fair to the non-rock geek masses, Wussy's music has never exactly been pretty, as Cleaver and Walker's vocal ranges are limited and their guitar workouts, which often sound as if they're made of papier-mâché, are decidedly non-virtuosic. Although the band's technical competence has improved over the years, What Heaven Is Like is even less accessible than their early albums. Rather than push them in an Americana direction, the addition of avant-garde pedal-steel player John Erhardt to the band's lineup in 2014 has emboldened Wussy to embrace a noisier and dronier sound.
What Heaven Is Like perfectly balances effortless melodicism and noisy, mysterious murk.
That approach is evident on “Skip,” where the radio-friendly potential found in the punchy tempo and driving chord changes are obscured by shards of feedback and a thick cloud of vocal reverb. And on the heart-stoppingly beautiful ballad “Firefly,” which would probably play over the credits of a TV drama this fall if it had been performed by a buzzed-about chanteuse, with some hotshot producer at the helm. But as it exists, with all its squeaks and creaks, the track will be lucky to crack college radio rotations.
There are more technically proficient guitarists than Cleaver, but the sloppy, overdriven chordal riffs he inserts between vocal lines on “Cake” are spellbinding for their Richardsian timing. There are also singers with more range than Cleaver, but few could imbue the practically one-note melody of the “Sweet Jane”-indebted “Aliens in Our Midst” with as much bug-eyed character as he does. And there are more polished songwriters than Lisa Walker, but with tracks like “Gloria,” named for a character from FX's Fargo, that hardly matters: No amount of rickety guitar noise can obscure the instinctive way she turns the character sketch into an empowering feminist anthem, tied together by an at once haunting and fist-pumping refrain.
It's Wussy's imperfections, their commitment to staying weird, that makes this album another triumph in the band's almost impossibly consistent discography. In a musical landscape where even small, independent artists digitally manicure their work as thoroughly as possible, Wussy seeks to find the beauty in the grime. This isn't just a matter of leaving the mistakes in—though when Walker briefly messes up a line in “One Per Customer,” it heightens the song's spontaneous, seat-of-the-pants feel. What Heaven Is Like's wizardry lies in the band's uncanny ability to make their finely tuned chemistry sound like off-the-cuff jamming between amateurs in a basement.