It’s hard not to feel bad for Cincinnati indie rockers Wussy, and not just because their name brings to mind some skinny sucker getting mercilessly bog-washed by the school bully. The band, led by dual vocalists Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker, have been plying their earnest heartland rock for 10 years and five albums now, meeting little more than ignorance or indifference outside of a few rapturous critics (presumably in a bid to attract more attention for Wussy, legendary US critic Robert Christgau recently referred to them, somewhat sensationally, as “the best band in America”).
So while like-minded contemporaries like Drive-By Truckers, the Hold Steady and the New Pornographers have broken on to the world stage in a big way, Wussy are still splitting their time between touring and holding down their day jobs, and Buckeye is their first album to get an official release outside of the US. This Europe-only compilation serves as a primer to Wussy’s sound for the uninitiated on this side of the Atlantic. Its 17 tracks are drawn fairly evenly from the band’s back catalogue, from 2005′s Funeral Dress right up to Strawberry, released late last year.
If you’re one of the few who have been following Wussy’s US releases over the last few years, then Buckeye isn’t for you. There’s no new material here. For everyone else, though, it’s a great introduction to the band’s tight but scuffed-up rock, which evokes the golden age of first-gen indie, grunge and alt.country that ruled the American alternative scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s. This generous set highlights the consistency and quality of Cleaver and Walker’s songwriting, as well as the interplay between their voices, a major through-line connecting all their work together. The soulful, wavering quality of Cleaver’s vocals provide a compelling counterpoint to Walker’s supple range and confident tone on stompy rocker ‘Pulverized’ and the earworm chorus of ‘Crooked’.
At the heart of Wussy’s songs, there’s a kind of nostalgic familiarity, a feeling that these are classic tracks that you’d just forgotten about. It’s a sensation that cuts both ways. On the one hand, Cleaver and Walker’s steadfast devotion to tried-and-true US indie themes like break-ups (‘Airborne’) and small-town escape fantasies (‘Motorcycle’), along with the instantly recognisable reference points of the riffs and song structures, will bring warm feelings to anyone with even a passing affection for the likes of Yo La Tengo, Pavement or early R.E.M. But this familiarity also ensures that the tracks on Buckeye are mac ‘n’ cheese-style comfort music first and foremost. The twitchy, spiky riff of ‘Muscle Cars’ is a dead ringer for Built to Spill, while the wistful county fair reminiscence on ‘Grand Champion Steer’ could easily be some unreleased Patterson Hood number. The guitars on ‘Funeral Dress’ affectionately crib from the Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’. As consistently satisfying as these songs are, they’re modest in their ambitions. Gobs are unlikely to be smacked.
In the end, the simplicity and modesty of Wussy’s output doesn’t make it any less fun to listen to. But it might explain why they’re still primarily a regional band while many of their contemporaries have gone international. And actually, Wussy probably work better as local heroes than global superstars – the reference of Buckeye’s title to the band’s native Ohio (the Buckeye State) suggests that home is an important concept to Walker and Cleaver. Wussy might have missed out on stardom by steadfastly sticking to their roots, but given how content they seem in their niche, they probably wouldn’t have it any other way.