Satellite Lot: Sleepwalk in a Burning Building

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Satellite Lot return with Sleepwalk in a Burning Building

No fair naming names, but not long after my list of the top local albums of 2005 was released with Satellite Lot’s Second Summer at the top I got an email from a band whose album I’d sort of panned: “Hey, I just picked up Second Summer … this album fucking ROCKS. Good choice, definitely number one. I’ve never heard anything this good out of Portland. Are there any other bands you would recommend in the area making music this good?”

Well, sure, I wrote back, there’s Cult Maze, An Evening With, Phantom Buffalo, Diamond Sharp, the Enchantments – and those are just the bands making great music in Portland within the same genre. But that debut record was certainly remarkable in part because it was so unexpected. Though they’d been playing in Portland in various forms for a good five years, no one would have told you in 2005 that Satellite Lot were one of the biggest draws, that’s for sure, nor a favorite to put out the best album of the year.

Two years later, the band remain something of an enigma—incredibly well respected, yet unable to keep a stable lineup in place, only rarely playing out in Portland, and about to release a follow-up record, Dec. 14 at SPACE [this originally ran in 2007], that would seem to have come out of the blue. And the album they’re delivering was recorded entirely in their practice space, mixed and mastered by guitarist and more Casey McCurry, without any professional studio intervention.

“It still sounds like clown shoes,” McCurry offers. “Everybody tells me it sounds really good, but it never sounds even close enough to a real record for us.” So why not record with a local studio? “With the process we use to write songs,” McCurry says, “we wouldn’t be able to go into a studio until we grow up or something.”

Judging by the results found on Sleepwalk in a Burning Building, the tradeoff is worth it. Yes, the instruments can sound mushy at times, and the vocals are buried on some tracks, making good lyrics hard to parse, but the songwriting is terrific—organic, original, dense and slippery. Slightly tighter focused than Second Summer, Satellite Lot here trade in some Jersey rock for the dance pop of bands like the Call, the Alarm, and Duran Duran, trading heavily on synthesizers and electronically enhanced beats.

“Never Again” leans more toward the rock, driven by Ben Landry’s heavy snare and finishing grandly with a reverb-laden guitar hook. In the middle, Aaron Hautala delivers the unrequited love song that became his stock in trade on Second Summer: “Tell me one thing/ It’s just killing me/ How long, how long did you know/ That the life you’d grown to love would end in misery/ Explode in my face?”

Yet the following “Liberation Front” is a change of pace on nearly every front. It opens dance-floor amped, with pulsing digital beats from the synths and a main melody line like something off Like a Virgin, before calming down with a horn section featuring Brian Graham (Sly Chi), Mark Tipton, and Dave Noyes (Seekonk/Rustic Overtones). It’s futuristic like something off the soundtrack to Flash Gordon and downright utopist: “They showed me visions of a future I’m in love with/ I found another way.” For the present, however, “You can just open your eyes and see/ All that suffering/ Open your heart and feel/ All that you’re meant to feel.”

Nor do the band live entirely in the past with their references. “Werewolf Wolf” is alive with Killers guitars and Minus the Bear vocals. “Devil’s Details,” featuring anesthetized lead vocals from the now-departed Sydney Bourke, has guitar bursts like Tegan and Sara. Some of the more morbid lyrics (“Brick Tiger”: “Timing is everything/ They’ll find me, with a rope around my neck”) even have a contemporary touchpoint with Hautala’s dad, horror writer Rick Hautala (how I missed that connection last time around, I have no idea).

With tracks that start at 3:30 and run as long as 6:00, 6:45, and 7:15 on a 12-track disc, there is grist for the pop lover here, as well as the prog sensible. There’s melody and rhythm enough in often many-layered tracks to deconstruct, pull apart, and reassemble. While the instant singalong might be harder to find than on Second Summer, persevere. The album improves with every listen and is damn hard to get out of your player of choice.

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.