Confidence men (and women)

Spouse open up on their fifth full-length
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  May 5, 2010

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LEADING THE WAY Jose Ayerve’s vision is Spouse.

For a slice of Portland and scattered folks throughout New England and beyond, Spouse are downright seminal indie rockers, even though frontman Jose Ayerve has never quite been able to get the band consistently in one place at the same time and thus they’ve played here infrequently and only release albums every three years or so (their last was 2007’s Relocation Tactics). I announced I’d be throwing a Spose disc into the crowd at this past weekend’s Rock Off Finals and the 17-year-old Low Flying Airplanes guitarist on stage at the time said, “Don’t you mean Spouse?” I wanted to hug the kid — and took the opportunity to tell the crowd of Spouse’s new record deal with Nine Mile Records for their fifth full-length, Confidence, to be released May 18.

For those of us who’ve come to know Ayerve, one of the most respected and liked long-time members in our local music industry (even if he can’t quite decide whether to live here or in Northampton, Massachusetts), his haunting “09.19.05” is gut-wrenching and hard not to immediately address. That’s the day Ayerve’s father was murdered in a robbery attempt, and Ayerve describes the circumstances and the way his sister told him of it, while he was on the road tour-managing, in frank terms and naked vocals, backed by spare drums and touches of guitar: “My cell phone rings and it’s my sister ... Oh, no, what’s wrong?/I had a feeling/Our father’s dead/From a bullet to his head.”

It’s one of the most emotionally brave songs I’ve heard, but it’s tempting to say it’s typical of Spouse’s work. They have built their reputation on indie flavor infused with nostalgic melancholy and wistful celebrations of simple pleasures. I always thought it was ballsy of them to throw a silhouette image of then-Skinny owners Johnny and Mellow Lomba kissing on the cover of 2003’s Love Can’t Save This Love. It was just so personal. But Spouse have a way of making the personal public. Just as they close “09.19.05” with a reminder that “we all suffer crime,” they often manage to make specific situations seem universal. The acid-tongued “Keep Being You,” an indie take on Jersey Rock, like a Gaslight Anthem without the verse-chorus structure and made winsome by Naomi Hamby’s signature guitar playing and tone, is so full of details about a musician who’s found fame — “They’re waiting in line for you/To sign extra copies of your CD” — that the relationship feels real and specific. Yet who hasn’t felt that resentment while someone else is away, and “I’m still working, to pay the mortgage, to pay electric, to pay cable”?

Universally sublime, too, is the portrait painted in “Underwater,” where guest-star-of-sorts Erin McKeown lends her vocal talents: “A nice sunny day/Off with our clothes/You say you know a shortcut/Well, I stub my toe.” While I may have had McKeown do another take on her first line, getting that touch of sinister out of it, as the song progresses she and Ayerve mesh incredibly well, inhabiting the same portion of the register and at times seeming to meld into one slightly breathy vocal, he lending the body, she just a bit of lilt. The arrangement aptly helps in the storytelling, too: Dan Pollard’s bright piano lines contrasting with a muted cymbal from JJ O’Connell, as though the sun is so bright it’s hard to see; later O’Connell’s martial snare adding excitement and urgency as a digital wash is introduced for the submerging. By the finish — “The underwater conference we just held/was a great success” — it’s easy to feel the goosebumps rise like you’ve just climbed out of the lake yourself.

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