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.