Poor workmen, the old saw goes, always blame their tools. Proving the converse — that real talent renders the selection of implements immaterial — the two Spinanes employed only guitar, voice and drums on Manos to produce fully developed and highly distinctive indie-rock. Best, the group managed the neat trick of sounding perfectly right while breaking with longstanding tradition. Emerging from the Beat Happening/K Records orbit, Rebecca Gates (of Portland, Oregon) and Scott Plouf (of Olympia, Washington) eschew the bassist option and never miss it on the glorious Manos, obviating any need for a thumping bottom with her uncommonly inventive rhythm guitar work and handsome doubletracked singing and his economically sturdy and sympathetic drumming. Sometimes rustic/folky in the 10,000 Maniacs elegiac vein but loud enough in spots to resemble punk, the finely written songs soar on Gates’ rich melodies and cryptic phrases, stepping out on ledges just long enough to look down and come back inside. The gorgeous “Entire” begins the album by deconstructing the band’s sound down to voice and acoustic guitar, “Noel, Jonah and Me” and “Spitfire” kick it into full electric drive and Manos flows from there. Shifting easily from the dreamy zone of “Epiphany” to the edgy, droney aggression of the title tune to the busy pop allure of “Grand Prize,” the Spinanes do more stylistic exploration than most bands with four can manage.
After a long wait, it turned out that Manos was just a warmup. With subtler ambitions, more expansive ideas and a far surer hand in their execution, Strand rewrites the book on what the duo can do. Without being intrinsically different — using dietary helpings of overdubbery, Gates still sings and plays (although what she plays here includes piano, organ and mellotron; Elliott Smith is one of two backing vocal guests), and Plouf still rivets it all together with straightforward drumming — the album exists on another plane, a dreamstate rooted in studio experimentation not live practicality. The subliminal whoosh of “Madding” introduces the record’s otherworldliness, and nothing that follows — not even the quiet explosions detonating in the background of “Punch Line Loser,” cutting lines like “There’s no time for the boredom you inspire” (“Oceanwide”) or the whiskery guitar scratches that introduce the sensuously devoted “Lines and Lines” — contravenes the pensive moodiness. Exposed more clearly by the sheerness of the sound (and undoubtedly strengthened by several years of touring), Gates’ singing and lyrics are a revelation. So is the music. Other than when Plouf digs into a busy fill-‘er-up beat that calls attention to itself, Strand erases thoughts of its creative circumstances and rises on its own terms as a tensile thing of strong but impossibly delicate beauty.
Arches and Aisles, which unveiled the Spinanes to their largest audience, turned out to be their finale. Recorded without Plouf, who left the band to join Built to Spill, it’s a superlative album of quietly remarkable songs, undergirded always by Gates’ surefooted songwriting and achingly intimate alto vocals. Arches and Aisles showcased Gates as surely one of indie-rock’s sexiest singers (especially when heard on headphones); “Heisman Stance” and “Eleganza” are unabashedly sensual while rarely being explicit about their subject matter. Gates was at the time experimenting with R&B, covering songs by Aaliyah (“Are You That Somebody?”) and TLC (“No Scrubs”) in concert, and the sultry vibe of that genre also informed her singing in the studio. “Kid in Candy” and “72-74” have some of the old indie drive of the earlier Spinanes material and are excellent, albeit erratic, pop songs. The former depicts the ebbs and flows of an unsettled long-distance relationship: “Feeling good, yeah, feeling fine everyday / That’s because you’re three thousand miles away.” Gates is a generally elliptical lyricist, so when she turns direct, as in “Greetings From the Sugar Lick,” the effect can be unsettling: “Stuck listening, for amusement / To tall tales of perfect unions” she begins, and concludes bitterly “Pull your clothes off / let’s get this over with.” “Love, the Lazee” makes excellent use of a riveting guitar hook, Gates’ doubletracked vocals and the repeated closing chorus.
After Arches and Aisles, Gates put the Spinanes on ice with a 45 of Rolling Stones covers for Sub Pop. As a parting gift for fans, however, she assembled an EP from the Spinanes’ early 7-inch singles (“or 45s, if you prefer,” say the liner notes) and contributions to regional compilations made between 1991-1993. The Imp Years demonstrates that even the earliest Gates songs were impressively arranged and performed. “Suffice” and long-time fan favorite “Hawaiian Baby” (a song Buffalo Tom covered) are the best of a surprisingly solid batch. The sound is only a bit rougher or scratchier than Manos, and the songwriting almost up to Gates’ future career peaks. In fact, Imp Years is song-for-song almost as strong as the Spinanes’ proper albums, demonstrating just how impressive a talent Gates was from the beginning. A sultry, bluesy cover of “Handful of Hearts” by John Moen rounds out the six-song release.
Gates’ long-postponed solo career began with the Ruby Series album, a brief (seven-song) release on Badman. At the time, Gates was performing solo with a guitar and lime-green iBook for company, so the record’s quiet electronic flourishes are not a surprise. But since the Spinanes always consisted of Gates plus whomever, the overall tone of the record is still of a piece with late-period Spinanes, except for the increased reliance on keyboard and electronics. (Similar story: Listen to David Bazan’s Headphones next to his work with Pedro the Lion.)
The songs on Ruby Series are still rooted around Gates’ breathy, intimate singing and subtly twitchy melodies. However, the list of Chicago-based colleagues is noteworthy, with members of Tortoise, Califone, Red Red Meat and other acts visiting. “A Star Orbit” is bright pop by Gates’ standards, rooted in a bubbly computer groove. “The Seldom Scene” is a piano-guitar reverie. Gates puts her vocals closer to the front of the mix, resulting in an accessible indie-synthpop vibe at times, for which the closest reference would be a woman-sung version of the Postal Service. On the whole, Ruby Series is a pleasant album with lots of charm, but its brevity and relative directness means that it doesn’t bear up under repeated listenings as well as Manos or Arches.