José Ayerve: Cinco Pesos

Rock ’n’ Español

Ayerve’s alt-language debut

Some solo artists go to greater lengths than others when distancing themselves from their former or current bands. Dave Navarro’s recent effort wasn’t too dissimilar from work he’d done with Jane’s Addiction or Red Hot Chili Peppers: heavy guitars, straightforward rock ’n’ roll. But then you have Sting, who’s gone from punk rock Police hero to a pale imitation of Elton John, picking up Golden Globes for syrupy love-song movie themes.

Locally, Darien Brahms has distinguished herself as more of a folk/indie-rocker since the Latin/jazzy Munjoy Hill Society called it quits. But Sara Cox stayed pretty much in the Coming Grass vein with her emo-roots solo EP.

Spouse frontman and Bullyclub sideman José Ayerve has gone a step further than most with his new solo EP: He’s recorded the whole thing in Spanish.

“In order to get away from Spouse loyalty,” says Ayerve, “I felt like I had to dive into that whole Spanish portion of my background to steer around the notion that ‘This could be a Spouse song,’ or ‘This could be a Bullyclub song.’ ”

The result is Cinco Pesos, a six-song effort long in the making and worthy of the time spent.

“I finished it back in January of last year,” says Ayerve. “I did it all and had it ready to master. It was just a matter of having no money. After a while it just got irritating having this disc that was supposedly finished, so finally I was just like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll figure out the money later.’ ”

Good thing for Portland fans. Those who enjoyed Spouse’s latest, Nozomi, will find the new EP familiar in its guitar tone, Ayerve’s hushed vocals, and songwriting that’s just slightly ahead of the pop curve. And the language shouldn’t be too foreign, as Nozomi’s best song was probably the all-Spanish “Ni Una Sola Vez” — distorted guitars supporting a cool Latin swing.

It is that Spanish sentimentality that distinguishes this project from Ayerve’s others. It could have been gimmicky, had the songs been merely indie-rock standards with Spanish lyrics, but the tunes manage to stand firmly on their own Latin feet.

The opener (attributed to José Alfredo Jiménez), “Amenecí en Tus Brazos,” leads with some spacey distortion, but settles in nicely with a spare set of vocals, Leonard Cohen-style, over a bass/strum/strum Spanish merry-go-round rhythm. While the organization of the song is a pop verse/chorus/bridge arrangement, Ayerve inserts other elements to help the tune feel authentic: an echo to the voice track, a pause midway to emit a plaintive wail.

If the disc had remained that subdued, it might have gotten tiresome — much like Cohen’s most recent Ten New Songs — but the follow-up track is much more rockin’. There is a quick bluegrassy G-run to get your attention, then some salsa percussion as a foundation. The title, “Primavera,” is a fitting one — though it inspires initial pasta references for Anglocentrics — reminding a snowed-in listener of warmer climes and budding spring.

That will be half the fun for some listeners: How much of my seventh- and eighth-grade Spanish or Latin classes can I use to figure out what the heck he’s saying? You’ll certainly catch familiar snippets. “Mi amor,” sticks out on the duet Ayerve crafts with Anne Viebig on “Siempre Capaz,” an operatic ballad. And you’ll catch phrases like “gringo Americano” on the pistolero-filled “Los Ángeles,” what Ayerve describes as a story about “someone trying to make their way out of Mexico.”

“I think for some strange reason it’s easier for me to tell a story in Spanish,” he says. “Because I translate all the time it’s easier for me to find words that sound more like they should be together. Lyrics in Spanish are not as frequent, but they’re almost more fluid.”

They sound most fluid on “Cohete,” a relative burner that closes the disc out. A rapid guitar run precedes angry vocals like Latin punk-lite reminiscent of early Replacements or REM. The muted guitars that form the coda blanket barking dogs, lending a DIY quality like that found on the early Sublime discs.

Just as American rock ’n’ roll is sung in English the world over by Russians (Remember metal-heads Gorky Park?), Swedes (ah, ABBA), and whomever, Ayerve’s Spanish vocals seem to inspire him to create a rock/rumba hybrid that is completely his own.

“It’s easier to sing in Spanish when there’s something there reminding me of it,” he says. “I can’t just write this indie-rock song and throw some Spanish lyrics on top of it.”

Of course, the question remains: How are we to interpret this? Would a Spanish audience analyze this like any other indie-rock album? Is it, like instrumental jazz, meant only to be interpreted by English-speaking audiences here in Portland as music and the emotion it evokes? Ayerve hedges a little.

“If I were to play a show in front of an audience that were completely Spanish speaking,” Ayerve admits, “I wouldn’t feel less valid, but I’d feel a little more self-conscious. There’s a certain degree of artistic freedom that I’m taking because I know very well that most of my audience is going to be primarily English speaking and it’s easier to impress upon them.

“It’s one thing to speak Spanish inside the classroom,” he says with a grin in his voice, “it’s another thing to get from Machu Pichu to Mexico City.” Knowing that the disc will get some play on college and local stations’ “Latin Hour” (or however it’s billed), Ayerve hopes to get some feedback from Spanish listeners on how the disc stands as a Spanish work.

“Maybe it will be constructive.”

Spouse: Love Can’t Save This Love

Change partners

Spouse give you a shoulder to cry on

Spouse, those impetuous Bowdoin grads, are like Portland’s indie-rock house band. Except that they never play around here anymore [this is 2002]. It seems that the end of their college careers careened them off to the far corners of the country, landing them in far-away cities, with real-life jobs. Luckily, the musical anchor that is Jose Ayerve — the group’s frontman and soul — can’t pry himself from Portland’s friendly confines and we get to call the band our own. They are a talent worthy of covetousness.

Their new disc, Love Can’t Save This Love, repays us grandly for our devotion with an opening track that doubles as a joke and backwards glance. “Whatever Happened to Pete Shelley?” the song’s title, might be answered by the Buzzcocks’ Shelley with, “Who the fuck are Spouse?” It stands as indie-rock self-mockery by a bunch of kids fascinated with the music scene and its sometimes evil permutations. Shelley’s recently re-released solo album Homosapien, was one of the first efforts to bring cred to synth pop, but was generally ignored by the record-buying public. So, it didn’t come as any real surprise when The Best of Pete Shelley was released in November 2001 — but only in Japan.

So, too, Spouse’s debut full-length, 2000’s Nozomi, was described by more than one critic as a melodic, lyrically inspired masterpiece, but “Pete Shelley” implicitly asks: What good did it do them? “Where’d you go? Where’d you go? When you left here we don’t know? Were you running after someone you could have done without?” When the song finishes out with a round of vocals echoing and preceding one another, the swirling confusion rings genuine.

And it doesn’t get happier.

“Pocket #9” starts out as a downbeat, Lynchian dirge. “You work too hard getting around, getting over it,” Ayerve sings with back-of-the-throat breathiness. But, then, somehow, the band does collectively get over it. The song breaks like clouds dissipating, with a lo-fi bridge, a ringing lead from Naomi Hamby, and light keyboard strokes from Liz Bustamante. Mike Merenda’s drums pound in as if to shake off the cobwebs, and the album begins in earnest.

As musicians whose formative years were informed by the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Bret Easton Ellis novels, and Sixteen Candles, Spouse are masters of making self-loathing and suburban angst entertaining as hell. “Chiffon” is a punkish take on Big Country, where they threaten that they “Can’t keep being the object of your limited affection/ While you strive to reach perfection/ Like you’ve never reached before.” It’s both a missive from a spiteful band and an anthem for that famous ’80s latchkey kid, wishing mom and dad took a little more time off from their jobs.

“LA Tool & Die,” is an indie Depeche Mode self examiner, where “Here I am clinging to another cigarette” is all you need to know while Merenda knocks his kit around like Stewart Copeland, riding cymbals and bells, throwing percussion to the melodic wind.

But the Less than Zero “Sad, Not Trashed” is the album’s angst-ridden masterpiece. As plinking guitar harmonics lend a melancholy feel, the tone is sad and lilting, but not angry. It’s the suburban dissatisfaction that delights in resignation and leftist politics — a musical antithesis to the new anger rock of Korn and Slipknot that caters to a generation of kids who can (horribly) identify with domestic abuse, incest, and the like.

No, back in the flush ’80s, it was enough that Dad never came home, that Mom was always drunk, and that your boyfriend was never as deep and thoughtful as Andrew McCarthy. Talk about emotional inspection: “Every angle in the mirror’s a reflection of the Clock/ When we finally got our courage up we were both too fucked to talk/ I hope you’re making it alright/ I hope you’re taking it so hard/ I hope you’re thinking on your feet/ I hope you feel it all the time.”

Then, the lovely chorus: “We’re so sad when we’re not trashed.” Beautifully pathetic, right? The ascending levels of self pity gather and crash down in melancholy melody. “We share a smoke/ our dreams all dashed.” But the great thing is that they’re not asking you to care. They’re happy being sad. That’s their shtick. They know it. And when the resounding, uplifting “La, la, la (lots of las)” bridge breaks in, the urge to sing along at the top of your lungs, to identify with the self-loathing and revel in it, is undeniable.

“Boots and Pants” proves they’ve got a sense of humor about the whole thing. Merenda provides a pounding drum beat that evolves into a disco version of Duran Duran’s “Reflex.” Just hearing Ayerve emote “On the dance floor baby/ I want to see you shake like you shake, shake, shake me/ On the dance floor baby/ I want to see you shake that thing,” is worth a chuckle — if it weren’t so damn catchy. But the woe-is-me chorus is a clincher: “It’s okay/ It’s okay/ I just made it through another day.” It’s an indulgence cynically necessitated by the genre. Did you think Spouse was really just going to lay out a rump shaker on their album without mocking it? Oh, the horrible, tedious work of being famous rock stars.

When the song fades out, percussion mimicking both camera shutters and “Girls on Film,” the irony is palatable. These guys don’t want to be rocks stars. What would they have to be sad about? A song titled “Whatever Happened to Spouse?” may be all they aspire to.