Monday, November 13, 2006

Wussy: The Best Unheard Band of 2006?


Ass Ponys: the only band name worse than Wussy

The Ass Ponys aren't for me. At least the only Ass Ponys record I own, Electric Rock Music, isn't. I got it off Amazon for a penny plus shipping, and concluded from its initial look that it was one of those college-alt albums that never went anywhere, with an educated guess towards alt-country. With song titles like "Peanut '93" and "Little Bastard" and album art featuring cute veggie sculptures, it seemed destined for 90s alt cutout bins even before I experienced Chuck Cleaver's 1994 voice, described by Rob Sheffield as "the sound of Neil Young getting felt up by a gorilla in a high wind" and actually worse. So I'm not sure I'll be checking out the also-recommended Some Stupid With A Flare Gun, which Amazon has used for $4.99, but maybe I'll skim through Lohio over Thanksgiving break, which I can borrow from my dad.

Why do I care about anything by these 90s has-beens, much less another record? Because I'd love to call Funeral Dress, the excellent debut record from Cleaver's new band, Wussy, anything but a fluke. Dress is one of those modestly perfect singer-songwriter albums like Rhett Miller's The Instigator or Spoon's Kill The Moonlight that just reveals itself over a dozen or more listens as something you'll want to keep playing after a dozen listens. Its arsenal is small and simplistic compared to this age of Sam's Towns and Black Parades: perfect turn of phrase after perfect turn of phrase, a hook worth revisiting on every track, song structures and arrangments that vary but not drastically, running time under an hour. But it does all of that. And even though Cleaver's voice has improved in the eleven years since Electric Rock Music, it's hardly as proficient as Britt Daniel's or as gorgeous as Rhett Miller's, so co-frontperson Lisa Walker helps dilute his sandpapery talents to a level resembling something like ear candy. Sometimes she sings his tunes; the quietly strange "Humanbrained Horse" reads with a weirdness as unmistakable to his signature as Michael Stipe's or Tom Waits', in which Walker pays a dime's admission to see if the title sideshow star is smarter than her. That's definitely not how Brandon Flowers would portray feelings of inadequacy. But most of the album's lyrics are simpler than that, even when they're Chuck's: "Airborne" succeeds as a breakup song where so many emo bands fail, because he sanely puts you in the picture: "something from the 'yours' pile/shattered on the floor tile/and you went off like Frankenstein." His big love song shares that rugged simplicity. The "Yellow Cotton Dress" he claims, is "beautiful no doubt/but it becomes a motherfucker when you fill it out." And that one has appropriately joyous music exploding out from under it, like The Arcade Fire with more fireworks.

Walker more than holds her own, though. Her sweet voice is expected to make typical trouble-in-paradise remarks like "it wasn't meant the way you took it," and longing pleas for a "free ride out of this place" on the back of a dream guy's "Motorcycle." But what about "I found a bullet while you were out finding God?" These minitaure shards of the unsettling keep a simple three-chord garage-country album from getting too safe, even when it piles on the sweetness of melodica, harmonica and xylophone. It's a coup that's way more formal than Ass Ponys' "electric rock music," which sounded more like a jam band with a Neil Young fetish filtered through some weird Afghan Whigs-type grunge castoff. These guys resemble Imperial Teen dragged through rural Ohio dirt. They're almost never fast, even on a token "rock" song like "Funeral Dress" that prefers to crunch it out like a PJ Harvey dirge instead. But if simplicity and sincerity and songcraft don't do it for you, try the hooks. "Motorcycle" and "Crooked" are founded on heavenly trad-rock choruses, while "Conversation Lags" is a beautiful drone that begins sparse and ends gorgeous, with Walker's cooing harmonies layered more with each successive, nearly wordless refrain. But it's the melodica-hooked "Soak It Up" that takes three tried-and-true chords and carries the album to its strongest and simplest peak. The best rock album of 2006, one so good that it actually hails from the tail-end of 2005, where it was criminally ignored, including by me. But while 2006's actual best rock record, Be Your Own Pet, gets by on enthusiasm and rush, Funeral Dress is a notch higher on songcraft and heart. And they're even working on a new one, slated for 2007. Get on the bandwagon now, so you can say you knew 'em first.

Funeral Dress: A

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