Seattle 1993 was the famous grungy playground for dudes in beer-stained flannel while Portland, Oregon, was the scrappy underdog that no one cared about (read Chelsey Johnson’s recent Stray City to feel the vibe) but had an ace music community. Portland was full of punk kids on bikes, shared houses, Drugstore Cowboy extras; it was a place where bands like Hazel and Heatmiser recorded in damp basements and a time when bands toured using payphones and maps, crashing on fan floors.
The Spinanes were Portland OGs singer-guitarist Rebecca Gates and drummer Scott Plouf, who met via mutual friends and started playing music together a few months before their performance at the legendary International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia, WA, in 1991, and were snapped up by Sub Pop in the post-Nirvana feeding frenzy. Gates was a guitar manipulator more artful and poetic and sensual than her peers, with a voice full of emotion and warmth—a deep, distinct standout among the samey girly-girls. Plouf was a powerhouse drummer, exact and on-point, with a giant collection of shades and enough mod swagger to make Paul Weller proud. Their urgency was soft but they pummeled us hard.
The Clintons ran the country, riot grrrls were on the cover of Time, and the dream of (making music for a living) the ’90s was alive in Portland. Like slightly scruffy, slightly glam thrift-store siblings, the Spinanes came off as smart and serious. When they recorded their debut album, Manos, with Brian Paulson at AmRep in Minneapolis, they brought a ridiculous amount of energy: Few acts manage to capture that live spark in the studio.
A college radio hit, Manos was characterised as indiepop or indie rock or “alternative,” but also had a touch of art rock, folk, emo, math rock, postrock, even jazz, nearing the same spiritual space as ’90s bands like Unrest, Sebadoh, and Versus. Gates told our zine (chickfactor) in 1993 what kind of record she wanted to make: She wanted it to be “really magical—the way the first Verlaines record is or a Replacements record—things that you can put on when you feel horrible.”
Named after a misheard Jesus Lizard lyric, Manos is just that: It sounds like smoky venues and dance parties at punk houses: woozy, tight, fraught, wrought, tense, intense, swoony, breathy, fast, worldly/weary—sophisticated and primitive, stressful and soothing. Twelve songs and nary a dud: “Noel, Jonah and Me,” the epic title track (a hip-swayer full of lust and longing), the rifftastic “Grand Prize,” the catchy “Sunday.”
Everyone was all, “Why no bass player?”, but why fix what ain’t broke? They sounded as full as they wanted to. Gates wanted few effects, straightforward vocals, and ideally no reverb (she thought it seemed lazy), and album art referenced the tone of the songs and was literally about hands. Manos was an original in a crowded market in 1993, and the Spinanes seemed to be everywhere. All hail its reissue, one quarter century later.