Sharps & flats

The evanescent Spinanes sharpen two songs from the Rolling Stones' catalog, chronicling the impulse to fight emotional weariness and the temptation to succumb to it.

Published July 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Of all the low-fi indie pop performers indulging in the sonic and lyrical obliqueness the genre has favored, none has cast such a rich and intoxicating spell as Rebecca Gates of the Spinanes. On the haunting mood pieces "Arches and Aisles" (1998) and "Strand" (1996), she favored seduction over aggression, evanescence over concreteness, the whispered wryness of a nicked heart over the full-throated cry of a bruised soul.

Gates' greatest asset has been her voice. Too soft to be called burred, too alert and engaged to succumb to resignation, too earthy and sexy to waft off into the vapors, her low vocals both ground the songs and buoy their languid lyricism. When a guitar note is suddenly bent and elongated, or when Gates' voice sails up into its highest ranges, the effect is a little like sitting in a hot-air balloon while under a trance and contentedly watching the ground slowly drop away beneath you. When Gates sang, "Hot shit/sugar and liquor" on "Greetings From the Sugar Lick" (from "Arches and Aisles"), she was unconsciously describing her voice, the traces of sweetness always present under its spreading warmth.

That warmth, and Gates' determination to be present in her music as a body and not merely some wafting phantasm (` la Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval), help explain why, in performance, her music doesn't get swallowed up in the performance space. In concert, the Spinanes have unleashed some killer covers; on their last tour it was a knockout version of Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody?" But there's a particular emotional and musical consonance suggested by their new 7-inch, which contains two songs from the Rolling Stones' dreamy "Between the Buttons" (1967).

Settling on "All Sold Out" and "She Smiled Sweetly" (listed here as "(S)he Smiled Sweetly, to account for the pronoun change), Gates, along with Joanna Bolme on guitar and organ and Jerry Busher on drums, offers this single as both homage and precis, an encapsulation of the mood evoked by "Between the Buttons" and another avenue for her own style. The two sides of the 45 are an illustration of the tension that plays itself out in the Spinanes' music, the impulse to fight emotional weariness and the temptation to succumb to it. In a neat twist, it's the A-side rocker "All Sold Out" that expresses that temptation, while the languid B-side brings back the fight.

It's cool to hear Gates in place of Jagger, not just for the nifty sexual politics switcheroo, but because, unlike Jagger, Gates can play it cool without seeming detached. While Gates' and Bolme's guitars fuzz through the number and a chorus of "Hey! Hey!"s back up her every vocal line, Gates delivers the lyrics with a hard matter-of-factness. "You sold me out and that's that," she sings like someone who's just received news of a betrayal she could see coming for miles. There's no self-pity in it, but no fight either. The medicine is on the spoon and she's just been made to swallow it and deal with the bitter taste in her mouth.

The sweetness creeps back in on "(S)he Smiled Sweetly," a love song in which a lover's smile is the balm that soothes the ravages of everyday life, the encroachment of time. Bolme does stellar work on this track, her organ lines adding a feel that's both casual and stately, and Busher's drums find a beat appropriate to the ennui of a twilight reverie (the type of beat that Charlie Watts, the Miles Davis of rock 'n' roll drummers, found effortlessly). But it's Gates whose vocals focus and sharpen the meanings of the songs. There's a groan in her voice that was never present before; when she sings, "My hair's turning gray," you feel she might be holding a gilded mirror in her hand, watching it happen. But she delivers the chorus, "He smiled sweetly and said don't worry/No, no, no, no," in a way that suggests her lover's assurances are the thing come to lift the spell she's under. Or at least something dear enough to make you believe in the possibility of a curse being lifted.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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