Lounge Ax, March 23

By Bill Meyer

Knowing how to work with limitations can lead to creative payoffs. The Spinanes, a two-piece rock band from Portland, Oregon, have made virtues of technical obstacles. Self-taught guitarist Rebecca Gates has turned her initial unfamiliarity with conventional technique into an asset; she’s an economical player with an ear for surprising harmonic details that are often derived from dogged investigations of “wrong” notes that a well-schooled musician would avoid. Her singing voice lacks range, but its smooth timbre and her understated delivery pack a powerful emotional punch. The band is drummer Scott Plouf’s first, which may explain why his playing so perfectly complements Gates’s; his strident beats define the songs’ structures while his precise accents fill up the spaces left by her guitar.

The guitar, drums, and no bass lineup isn’t that unusual; a host of indie-rock bands have favored the same stark format. But most of them also create a fragile, simplistic sound. Not the Spinanes. Gates revels in scrubbing out aggressive, choppy riffs, while Plouf pounds his drums like a man working off a grudge.

Manos, the group’s first album, was released in late 1993. It ably duplicates the Spinanes’ bracing live attack, unadorned except for some overdubbed vocal harmonies. It also reveals Gates to be an intriguing songwriter with a gift for indelible melodies. Her lyrics are most compelling when they relate fragments of interpersonal transactions by piling detail upon detail without ever telling the whole story. But even on songs like “Grand Prize,” where she lapses into vague generalizations that only grow less clear on closer examination, the duo’s playing puts the tunes across.

Even a tasty recipe runs the risk of becoming formulaic, so on their new record Strand the Spinanes use a quieter, more layered approach that relies on the studio’s resources. The opening track, “Madding,” sets the tone. Instead of his usual heavy drumming, Plouf lightly brushes his cymbals over a slowed-down drum track, while Gates’s guitar playing is sparse and sorrowful, echoing the exhausted resignation of her voice. “Madding” foreshadows the album’s narrowed lyrical focus; the songs are an extended meditation on collapsing and reconnecting relationships.

It’s one thing for a band to reinvent itself in the studio and quite another to pull it off live. At Lounge Ax the Spinanes’ efforts to re-create Strand’s textures by adding two musicians only worked intermittently. Gates and Plouf opened with “Madding,” sounding even more weary than on the recording. That might have been attributable to fatigue; in the preceding 24 hours they’d driven here from Minneapolis and filmed a video. The duo continued with four older songs, beginning a bit raggedly but soon hitting their stride. Gates’s eccentric guitar concept stood out on “Hawaiian Baby,” on which she defiantly favored those wrong notes, slurring and bending them with intuitive confidence.

But her adventuresome style was encumbered when they were joined by multiinstrumentalists John Moen and Joanna Bolme. The four-piece Spinanes repeatedly stumbled in and out of sync, meshing like clockwork one moment, sloppy and tentative the next. On “Oceanwide” they lurched so abruptly into confusion that Gates actually fell to her knees for a moment, looking both amused and shocked. But the quartet’s difficulties threw the core band’s strengths into sharp relief. Plouf’s unflappably steady playing confirmed the old adage that a great drummer can make any band sound good; he lent coherence to the shaky moments and drive to the coherent ones. Gates’s singing hit even harder; commingling amusement and anger, she highlighted the songs’ emotional complexities. The band’s unsteady rapport became one more obstacle, which the duo exploited with assurance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Winters.