Exile from Guyville

The Spinanes
Arches and Aisles
Sub Pop

Spinanes front woman Rebecca Gates is no exile in Guyville; in fact, she's right at home there. One of the boys, Gates drives long distances by herself, drinks until she blacks out, turns her lovers into sex objects, and feels guilty later. She sings with Elliott Smith, Ben Lee, Beck, and the Mekons. She's distant, doesn't communicate clearly, isn't always there for us: "I want to be on the other side of the world," she once sang.

But her latest offering, Arches and Aisles, brings Gates closer to Liz's tough-talking turf--and not only because she recently moved from Portland to Chicago, Phair's hometown (not exactly the other side of the world). Where the last Spinanes release, 1996's luminous Strand, seemed split between sexual obsession and morning-after cynicism, Arches has more of the latter: more mind games than body wrestling, more separation and estrangement than ecstasy and melding. When Gates coolly chides, "Sunset babe?--that's a fox to you," on the album's buoyant/pensive opener, "Kid in Candy," she sounds wistfully sorry about the bad taste of the fellow she's addressing. But she also slips in a little bitchiness, and we get the sense that the odds are getting fatter that she'll have Johnny's head on a platter.

Gates's songs have more room for reflection (or for revenge fantasies?) these days; now that her lone bandmate, drummer Scott Plouf, has absconded for Built to Spill, the remaining Spinane is left to pull the aesthetic yoke alone. Plouf's metronomic but emphatically expressive drumming on the Spinanes' wonderful 1993 debut, Manos, and its follow-up, Strand, both grounded and gave urgency to Gates's chilly control. Arches takes steps toward trading open-stringed guitar purism for neoclassical pop arrangements (keyboard riffs, bridges), but, as on early records, it finds Gates dancing with herself, overdubbing her own guitar and dueting with her own voice via smart multitracking. In this hall of mirrors, a lyric like "Diamonds dripping on the low-voice sound" can seem simultaneously narcissistic and self-critical, especially without Plouf's percussion to weigh it down.

That signature low-voice sound is seductive in a curiously demure way, like the murmuring monotone of a college-radio DJ on the late shift. Gates's even-keel croon equalizes hit-the-road-jack and please-come-back sentiments that a Mariah or Erykah--even a Kristin Hersh--would blow to the red end of the dial. When Gates vamps, "You think she needs you-ooo," on the torch song "Greetings from the Sugar Lick," she aims for Nina Simone and hits Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook. And the spiraling "Love, the Lazee" never reaches the dizzying heights it could coming from a more pliable throat. That said, it's a welcome reality check to hear a female performer plunging hot, panting emotion into the frigid waters of intellect. Gates comes off like Elvis Costello without the testosterone (or the adenoids): Her anger isn't vented in theatrical displays but sublimated in heady swoops of songcraft.

Yet the reserve isn't all Gates's doing. A collaborative effort that commands the services of well-known post-rock players such as Tortoise drummer John McEntire, veteran producer Doug Easley, and Sam Prekop (of the Sea and Cake), Arches bears the stamp of these Midwestern indie blue bloods. "Reach v. Speed" is effectively a Sea and Cake song with Gates's vocals. The McEntire-isms on that number and on "Kid in Candy"--guitar tones as round, burnished, and modest as 1994 pennies, re-coated by analogue organ swells--could be heard as superfluous, but they're best taken at face value as trademarks of a production style as distinctive today as Nick Lowe's was two generations ago. But make no mistake: Gates's hand is the one that rocks the mixing board.

Inside her record's pretty (if grimly gray) floral cover you'll find snapshots of consoles and dials, the singer-songwriter at her piano with a mic and a bottle of Bud Dry--the iconography of the Studio Project to say the least. And Gates's vision is the one that shapes the album's world, one in which there's still plenty of beauty, but its cost is sadness. No more exuberance sparked simply from being in the presence of something cherished (a boyfriend, a band). No more hanging around in bed all afternoon tasting the small of a lover's back. Now it's business as usual ("Pull your clothes off, let's get this over with") or worse, actual business ("God grant us grace in working the room").

Gates has reached a point of reckoning: No part-time punk, she has only her own experiences as a full-time rock 'n' roller left to tap. She transmits the cynicism of an industry player (and/or perpetual outsider), the rootlessness of a troubadour, the sad self-indulgences of a lover and poet. With these tightly wound skeins of theme and mood, Arches is a self-consciously coherent and more-or-less fully realized project, which is a rare thing. But it's also a rarefied thing; the understated production and studious performances, though lovely, feel vacuum-sealed. When she sings, "I'm waiting for the chance to jump on out of your little boy world," we're crossing our fingers, hoping that she'll take the leap.

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