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.”

Seekonk: Pinkwood 2

Return 2 Pinkwood

The once and future Seekonk

Seekonk’s web site has been abandoned and is now a home for spam. They haven’t played a show this year [this was originally written in 2008]. Northeast Indie, the label that in 2005 put out the band’s last album, Pinkwood, has also lost its internet presence and is no longer an active label (though I bet Paul Agnew still has a few discs available for sale should you want to track him down).

Heck, the Seekonk album Burst & Bloom released this week, Pinkwood 2, was originally released two years ago and was in the can a year before that.

Why should anyone care?

Maybe we’re not collectively that cynical yet. As artistically satisfying as it was for Seekonk to release Pinkwood 2 originally as a limited run of 100 pieces of vinyl, they really were depriving the larger populace of a fairly grand musical experience. Now, thanks to Burst & Bloom (it’s a limited run of 100 CDs this time around, but they’ll make more if you buy them, I’m fairly certain), there’s a whole new opportunity to experience a gifted band at the height of their powers.

Described often as slo-core, or even orchestral indie, it’s true they share an aesthetic with Low or Mazzy Star at times, but even if this band were doing nothing but covers, I suspect they’d be worth listening to. Each note is so carefully chosen, placed, and positioned. Seekonk offer such a whole and inclusive world in which to reside. Their sound fits effortlessly into that sweet spot of familiar and brand-new.

Is it the pacing that makes a Seekonk song? No. “For a Reason,” with a digital effect like a UFO landing and taking off, is downright manic in its beat, with xylophone like drops of water off the trees onto the roof an hour after the thunderstorm ended. By the finish it’s a straight-up head-nodder.

Seekonk are more than a quiet band to get moody to.

Perhaps what they do best is challenge expectations. They open Pinkwood 2 with “The Rage,” a song that ironically begins lushly and gently, with pinging xylophone and Sarah Ramey’s breathy vocals assuring, “it’s nice to meet you.”

You find the rage, but only if you keep looking. What is rage when you don’t seem to know what aggression is?

Maybe it’s in the digital whirring that purposely mars the pop sensibility with a touch of discord, just as the band throw in sour notes as though to keep things from getting too pretty. “Take the records off the shelf,” Ramey implores, “throw them away.” Only a band this confident would bring in this late-song electric guitar riff, before quickly taking it away.

There are bands that would craft whole songs from that riff. For Seekonk, it’s a passing fancy, the type of thing Pat Corrigan or Todd Hutchisen seem to effortlessly dream up.

“Half Moon,” a good stand in for the essence of Seekonk, is methodical without being plodding, delicate and serene. To the fore is an acoustic guitar strum, a keyboard mirroring the vocal melody, but there’s a sheen of feedback and screeching that’s just out of earshot, as though there were traffic in the background as you listened to the song on the bus with your earphones in.

Around the four-minute mark the drums enter and add a sense of urgency, ramping the song up into a full-blown indie rock tune, crashing about and active like the Walkmen (whose new Lisbon is a kissing cousin to this disc in many ways).

They can strut and bounce, too. The vibraphone and brushes on the snare in “38. Special” amble and shuffle, while the lyrics and delivery suggest something darker. This song, more than any of the eight here, make you wonder what would happen if the band took the governor off.

Not that they’re the type of band to be constrained by genre. They move, in “Breakfast at Noon” and later in “Hills of Pennsylvania,” toward an alt-country vibe, mixing in pedal steel and a twang you can feel in your gut. In “Noon,” Jason Ingalls’ crisp snare is mixed perfectly by Jonathan Wyman, a support structure for Ramey’s best vocals of the disc, rising for once into full body at the 3:30 mark.

But Seekonk won’t be predictable or easy. The shuffling Texas beat of “Hills,” heavy in low-end guitar, with competing melody lines, shifts suddenly to a Latin beat, active, which itself is in contrast to the hovering vocals, which never sound less than half asleep.

That’s part of their sound, of course, but I do find myself wishing Ramey would finish off a few more lyrics, instead of living on initial consonant and vowel sounds. A few glottal stops here and there and I might catch a bit more meaning.

This isn’t a lyrics band, though, and Ramey’s voice is as much a part of the instrumental construction as it is a mode of meaning delivery. In the crisp “Waking,” a gorgeous construction of delicate guitar and xylophone, she repeats “right about now” until it’s poppy and uplifting, before backwards-played mutterings enter to haunt the song’s finish.

That nagging sense of doubt is the album’s heart. It is the conscience we battle to both ignore and satisfy, the ugliness we seek to dispel but can’t live without.