Exhuming The Spinanes.
I'm pretty sure almost nobody remembers The Spinanes at this late date. It's kind of understandable, since they've been broken up for over five years, and didn't exactly have a high profile while they were together. That said, it's also quite unfortunate. It's tempting now, at this late date, to discuss The Spinanes in retroactive terms, to attempt to clarify what's good about their music by trying to get the first time listener to imagine the environment in which it was originally recorded. A decade ago, when "Manos" was released, The White Stripes and all of the other bands that were directly or indirectly inspired by them were years in the future, and the fact that The Spinanes were a two-piece with no bass player made them nearly unique within the broader context of indie rock (Beat Happening were also bassless, but their constant instrument-switching and primitive, childlike melodies put them on a completely different level than The Spinanes, both in style and execution). These days, such an arrangement seems like no big deal, and it's hard not to jump into the whole "but they were so ahead of their time!" line of defense. In fact, to do so would miss the point entirely; that point being how good The Spinanes are at writing songs. The answer is "very", which is why they have no need of a timeline-oriented justification. Even stripped of the context in which "Manos" was released slightly over a decade ago, it loses nothing; it's still an excellent pop record.
On the other hand, the fact that it is presented as a straightforward pop album does a lot to emphasize the stark, minimalist arrangement of the instrumentation. It's strange to hear a guitar line that would normally be doubled in a slightly lower register by bass guitar standing alone at the forefront of the mix. There's a strangeness to it that's absent in the music of bands like The White Stripes, The Black Keys, The Coachwhips, and the many others using this instrumental configuration today; where bands like those mentioned above pile on thick layers of distortion in order to allow their guitars to fill the space a bass would normally occupy, Rebecca Gates of The Spinanes uses only mild amounts of overdrive on her electric guitar. This leaves it sounding rather mannered and polished, and certainly not taking up any more room than it would in a larger band. The only contemporary thing I can really compare it to is Mary Timony's guitar work on "Ex Hex", another album recorded as a two-piece. But where Mary Timony twists her guitar into strange, psychedelic shapes, to the point where you barely notice the holes in the mix, Rebecca Gates plays it straight, relying on neither noise nor distraction to cover up for the lack of bass.
She leaves that job to drummer Scott Plouf. It was his drumming, even more than Gates's pleasantly melodic vocal lines and exuberant major-chord choruses, that first stood out to me upon listening to "Manos". His bass drum plants itself solidly in the forefront of the mix, forcing you to notice the underlying rhythms of the songs in a way that you wouldn't if there were a bass guitar there. His heavy footed playing is so powerful, so right, that it feels as if he's following the melodies of the songs on his bass drum, as if you'd be able to pick out the individual notes if you could only attune your hearing properly.
The songs on "Manos" all begin with this rock-solid foundation, and this is certainly a big part of why it sounds so great. However, giving credit where it's due requires the acknowledgement of Rebecca Gates's incredible pop songwriting. She's not the flashy type, and indeed, most of the songs here are quite understated in their subtle power. "Epiphany" starts with a bright, midtempo melody, accompanied by Gates's stellar vocals, and doesn't really go very far from that point at first. Rather than getting boring, as a relatively static song structure such as this one could in lesser hands, it lulls the listener into a pleasant reverie, which makes it all the more surprising when, two and a half minutes in, the song suddenly builds to a more powerful chorus. In reality, the shift in dynamic is small and doesn't seem like it should have such an impact, but it does, and this is entirely by design.
This same attention to detail shows up in other places on the album, as on the chorus of "Uneasy", where the guitar changes from the choppy sound it's had on the verses to cleaner, more melodic strumming, just as Gates sings, "try a little tenderness." "Dangle" is not too different from any other song on the album, but the minor chords that drift into the verses illustrate the melancholy of the song's lyrics with a light, yet evocative touch.
The overall feeling of "Manos" is one of intimacy: minimalist arrangements make every vocal nuance, every drum hit stand out, as if each minor decision made in the album's performance is communicating a message to the listener. At the same time, The Spinanes' music has the power to fill a room with warmth and light, enveloping the listener in its subtle but ultimately overwhelming beauty. How this band has become so obscure as they now are is a complete mystery to me.