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The Spinanes - Manos Music Album Reviews

One of the first non-grunge bands on Sub Pop showed just how malleable underground pop could be; a quarter-century later, their debut remains a bracing, brazen showcase of rock minimalism.

Barely a month before the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, every independent band in the Pacific Northwest seemed to converge on Olympia, Wash., for a six-day event dreamed up by K Records’ Calvin Johnson and former label co-owner Candice Pedersen, the International Pop Underground Convention. Johnson and Pedersen wanted to showcase and support the breadth and depth of regional talent with concerts, parties, picnics, and even a Planet of the Apes marathon. Embracing DIY culture and rejecting corporate involvement, the convocation helped crystallize the burgeoning indie ethos and gave a megaphone to riot grrrls and queercore bands alike, including Heavens to Betsy and Bikini Kill. More generally, those six days in Olympia made an implicit underground idea explicit: Anyone could make viable, exciting punk with whatever resources they had on hand, even if it was two people playing guitar and drums, like the Spinanes.

Guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Gates and drummer Scott Plouf played a short set on International Pop’s first night as part of a 15-band bill of female-fronted acts called “Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now.” They weren’t the only duo—Heavens to Betsy, with Corin Tucker and Tracy Sawyer, made their debut that night—but their performance epitomized the idea of what could be done with such limited means, a concept they would soon explore on a series of singles for IMP Records. They signed to Sub Pop, becoming one of the label’s first non-grunge acts, to issue their debut full-length, Manos, in late 1993. Manos became the first independently released album to top the college radio charts, which shows just how crucial a role the Spinanes and the scene they represented played at a pivotal point in underground music. A quarter-century later, it is back in print, providing a welcome reminder of the core principles of that moment.

Manos is musically austere to the point of seeming conservative; after 25 years, that’s perhaps what remains most exciting about it. Gates’ insistence on replicating the band’s live sound in the studio overrode the possibilities of post-production, although she and Plouf did add some judicious overdubs. Musically and conceptually, Manos sounds immediate and purposeful. This is a band paring underground rock down to its essentials and then trimming it just a little more; what they keep and what they jettison makes for a bracing, often brazen listen, even at a time when “selling out” no longer connotes the mortal sin it once did.

This spartan approach means Gates and Plouf have to do more with their respective instruments, to be more inventive and sensitive in how they play off each other. On “Noel, Jonah, and Me,” Gates’ intricate riff splits the difference between lead and rhythm guitar, while Plouf punctuates her understated vocals with nervy snare interjections. “You’re twisting to feel,” Gates sings, but she and Plouf sound like they’re untangling indie rock to speak—and feel—more directly. They elaborate on that idea throughout these dozen songs, showing all the different things they could do with this lineup: the bright classic-rock riffing of “Grand Prize,” the quiet dirge of “Shellburn,” the jittery dance punk of “I Love That Party with the Monkey Kitty.”

The Spinanes’ subsequent records were less anchored to this minimal approach, giving them more gradients of sound if not necessarily more shades of emotion. Plouf split in 1996 to become the full-time drummer in Built to Spill, and Gates retired the Spinanes name three years later, releasing sporadic solo material. For its 25th anniversary, Manos traveled from the west coast to the east, from Sub Pop to Merge. Along the way, it gained a few bonus tracks. The live versions of “Epiphany” and “Manos” are the most intriguing, as they demonstrate just how closely this debut album reflected their live sound. Recorded in 1994 at Yoyo A Go Go, an Olympia festival inspired by the International Pop Underground Convention, “Manos” is a flurry of angry guitar strums and thundering drums. Gates and Plouf sound like they’re playing at each other rather than with each other. It may make you long for more live material, but a stripped-down reissue is only appropriate for such a stripped-down record, made by two people who proved just how malleable underground pop can be.

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