Photo Credit: Anna Stockton
Chuck Cleaver (Wussy, Ass Ponys) has been writing and performing his thoughtful, idiosyncratic songs for over thirty years, developing a cult following of devoted fans across the United States, Europe and beyond. However, this summer’s upcoming Send Aid LP (on Shake It Records) marks his first recorded solo output.
Send Aid comes out July 19th and you can catch him at MOTR Pub on August 10th.
According to Cleaver, “folks have been trying to get me to do a solo record for years now,” but the thought of recording without his regular bandmates had always left him feeling a bit out-of-step. But then a prolific writing streak came along, and after Wussy had assembled their latest LPs (Forever Sounds and What Heaven Is Like), he was left with a near-album’s worth of extra material. He characterizes these solo tracks as “primarily Wussy rejects, although I wrote a couple just for this beast.”
And so… with one track already in tow from the Wussy sessions at Ultrasuede, Cleaver aimed to craft the remaining songs with a more DIY approach that he describes as “somewhere between John Prine and Big Stick.” On Send Aid, he set out to fully explore his love of noise mixed with a stripped-down aesthetic… then topping it off with a healthy dose of treated/doubled vocals. While a natural performer, Cleaver has always had a Lennon-esque disdain for his own singing voice, placing him in the role of reluctant frontman. But it is this vulnerability that shines through the layers of distortion and tape-delay.
Many of the off-the-cuff performances were recorded as first takes in practice spaces, engineered by frequent Wussy collaborator John Hoffman. The record’s fuzzed out edges are occasionally softened with the addition of cello, accordion, sitar or mandolin from Cleaver’s rotating backing band of friends and neighbors, who just happen to be among the best of Cincinnati’s thriving punk, indie rock and folk communities. The roster includes some of his Wussy bandmates, as well as appearances from members of Lung, Vacation, Dawg Yawp, Swim Team, Notches and Mardou. This record also marks Chuck’s final collaboration with the late (and greatly missed) mastering engineer Dave Davis; the two had worked together since the 1990s on multiple Ass Ponys and Wussy releases.
Much of Cleaver’s writing on Send Aid details the mundanity and memories of daily life, with other tracks unfolding as harrowing fictional narratives (two of Cleaver’s noted strengths). His struggles with self-doubt and pessimism are often laid bare in cheery three-chord pop format, as evidenced on the self-loathing opener “Terrible Friend”, as well as in “Bed”, in which he wards off thoughts of impending mortality with sleep: And as my time decreases / I’m sitting listening to “I Fall to Pieces” / And while the words are winding through my head / I think of all the things I should have said / Then I give up and go to bed.
Send Aid’sfirst single is “Anything,” an anthem to failed relationships, in which Cleaver laments, “It’s impossible, it seems, to not romanticize the past.” As if confirming his suspicions, he does just that in the final verse: Had it been a meaningless exchange, I don’t suppose I’d care / But the fuses all were lit, and bits of us were scattered everywhere / Though it’s really just my luck that I would try to find some comfort there / But I would do anything, I would do anything.
But not all is doom and gloom: In the sweet and instantly singable album closer “Folk Night at Fucky’s,” Cleaver recollects dancing around the house with his daughter as they listened to Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.” Throughout the record, emotions range from despair to joy… and everything in between. There are odes to bullets dodged (“Mess”, “Devil May Care”), megalomaniacs in positions of power (“Children of the Corn”), and the dual nature of passion (“Flowers and the Devil”).
No Cleaver record would be complete without a couple of tales from haunted small-town-Ohio, which always reside somewhere between reality and horror. His ominous “The Weekend That It Happened” details a fictional account of kidnapping and murder rooted in his real-life suspicion that “bad things always happen on the weekend.” Later on the album, “The Night We Missed the Horror Show” is a riff off of a Joe Lansdale short story title with one word altered. “I really just used the title,” he explains. “The song itself has nothing to do with the story. Except that there’s an element of overwhelming dread in the original – and a similar sense of dread in the song. But it’s about being afraid of things to come. It’s kind of a toss-up as to what’s more horrific – the story or real life.”
The album’s cover photos were taken by his daughter Anna Stockton, and were discovered in a moment of kismet. Cleaver had been having difficulty deciding on a cover image, when she happened to send him a batch of photos she had recently taken of his hometown Clarksville, Ohio. The first image he pulled up was of a now-defunct business well-known to him from his childhood. He knew immediately it would be the cover. According to Cleaver, “It’s a former furniture store that just happened to be where I was waiting on the school bus one morning in the 70s, when the owner asked if I could go up the street to check on the town barber. I found him, but he was long dead and catfish-grey. It was not a pleasant memory.” As for the title, it “came from a sign that’s on the door. It’s still there.”
The back cover, also a photo by Stockton, depicts the decaying remains of Valley Steel, also in Clarksville – a once thriving mill that ceased to exist when the railroad disappeared from the region. “It’s by the #8 trestle” according to Cleaver (Ass Ponys fans may recognize “trestle eight” from the song “Grim”). “It’s a sad ass state of affairs.”
Cleaver, along with Wussy bandmates Lisa Walker and Mark Messerly, will be combining forces for a solo tour throughout the East Coast, New England and the Midwest in Summer 2019. The in-the-round style shows will feature material from Send Aid, as well as from Walker’s and Messerly’s recently-released solo albums (under the monikers The Magic Words and INERT, respectively). The trio will perform in a combination of one-, two- and three-person setups, sharing stories behind the songs as time permits. Some stripped-down Wussy numbers will be included in the set (a la Funeral Dress II and Public Domain), interspersed with new solo and duo material.