José Ayerve makes melancholy upbeat

A Joy-ful sorrow
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  November 30, 2011

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REARRANGEMENT José Ayerve reinvents himself.
For a select few of us, the news of Spouse's hiatus was a little bit heartbreaking. Not enough of us, though. Otherwise it might have been worth it for José Ayerve, frontman and songwriter of the decade-and-a-half-old indie rock band, to continually tour the full band and try to make a living out of it.

Anyway, Ayerve had another project in the wings: A Severe Joy. It's one of those anagram things, but the rearranging isn't just of the letters. For Ayerve, it's a rearranging of his musical approach, his performance, his very persona. While the vocals remain the alternately raspy and crooning lilt you know from Spouse, there is all of a sudden a constant digital beat, like an indie club soundtrack. The subject matter is new and different, too, with the roundabout nostalgia and quasi-political takes replaced by something more forceful and immediate.

Really, for those who know Ayerve, who've heard his unassuming voice in mild conversation, all of this singing of carnal lust might be a little bit jarring. But maybe that's what the mask is for.

When you see this act live, it's more performance art than it is rock concert. Ayerve dances, in a costume, masked, sometimes in a sailor outfit. He can tailor it to the room and the show, the expected audience. He may or may not sing. He may or may not have accompanying musicians.

On the record, none of that matters.

From the open, it's hard not to notice the digital snares and varying sound effects. They're often mixed high and can make headphone listening unnerving and pulse-quickening, a cold contrast to the electric guitars, bass, and vocals, all of which Ayerve warmly supplies. The vocals are often heavily distorted with echo and reverb.

In the opening "I Need You Close," our protagonist wants to lose control, "screaming from the top of my lungs," and the music abides, with a screaming keyboard in the background and a digital whir that threatens to spin the song apart. "Falling Apart in Reverse" is "like stumbling around in the dark," with a very crunchy guitar solo and a bridge with a countering melody.

Not until "My Luv 4 Sale," though, do things start getting truly caustic and cynical. Something like a digital Wurlitzer introduces a carnival midway kind of vibe, ramped up and manic and crazed, before Ayerve enters heavily distorted and washed out. It still has a bit of melodic charm, though, maybe because Ayerve can't really make anything that doesn't have a bit of a melancholy lilt to it somewhere (which isn't a criticism, by any means).

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Then there is "Catapult" and its rolling bolero guitar line, like mid-career Duran Duran talking about what's "between your legs" between snippets of riffs and sounds like digital panting and piping flutes. "You move in close," Ayerve's voice crackles. "You try to kiss him/You feel like you're dying."

If Spouse often felt vulnerable, "Frank Black Soundtrack" shows A Severe Joy as outright lech. "I wanna sext you all night long" Ayerve repeats, with extra emphasis on the ultra-contemporary verb and its direct object, aping that Color Me Badd song recently covered by the Acafellas on Glee (don't ask why I know that). Except sexting you and sexing you are quite different, aren't they? Sexts can be ignored, ridiculed, maybe returned. They're aggressive, sure, but ultimately vanishing and solitary.

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