Like a kid in a candy store

Rebecca Gates takes the Spinanes to the next level.

The song of the summer is the Spinanes’ “Kid in Candy,” four and a half minutes of mainlined glee. With its hip-swiveling beat and expansive feel, “Kid in Candy” reproduces the thrill of merging onto a wide-open and empty highway at the start of an epic road trip. “Take a shine to the West Coast weather,” coaxes singer Rebecca Gates, ticking off a map’s worth of place names—LA, Michigan, the East River—to a guitar riff as uplifting as early-morning sunshine.

The Spinanes

Arches and Aisles (Sub Pop)

Kicking off the brand-new record Arches and Aisles (Sub Pop), the first Spinanes effort without drummer Scott Plouf, the song’s sense of liberation makes a neat allegory to Gates’ approach to recording as a solo artist. “I was thinking, ‘I can do whatever I want—I could make a Bjork record. I could make a heavy-metal record,” she recalled this spring during a visit to Seattle. “In the end, though, you realize that you write songs this certain way, so you try and work on the songs, and then think about how they’re going to best be recorded—as opposed to thinking, ‘This is my palette, so I have to work within it.'”

Not that Gates’ songwriting has ever been constrained by expectations—her own or others. Turning left from the catchy guitar-pop of their 1993 debut, Manos, the Spinanes achieved a noirish, headphones-at-3am feel with their follow-up, Strand. Arches continues down that record’s emotionally explicit road. The sunniness of “Kid in Candy” balances tracks like “Den Trawler,” with its wintry, Christmas-party landscape of sleighbells and vodka cocktails. “A lot of how I write and how I think about music is really cyclical, whether it’s musically, note-wise, or whether it’s topically,” Gates explained. “There’s always these topics weaving in and out.”

Besides revisiting Strand‘s darker emotions and textured production for Arches, Gates also returned to Easley Studios in Memphis, where Strand was made. To fill out the sound, she enlisted drummer Jerry Busher and guitarist Joanna Bolme, a friend from Portland and a former member of Crackerbash. Though she’s quick to credit the engineers’ help, Gates for the first time had final say on the production. “I’ve always heard stuff in my head, but I’ve been either not confident enough or not had the vocabulary,” she said. “Now I’m more willing to just try stuff.”

Gates also recorded a couple of the Arches tracks with indie luminary John McEntire of Tortoise in her new hometown, Chicago. She said her decision to move away from Portland in mid-1997 came from a desire to live in a more heterogeneous environment. From Chicago, Gates noted, she can see the big picture, particularly when it comes to music. “No offense meant to anybody, but you get out in the rest of the country, and a lot of people just don’t give a fuck,” she said. “In Chicago, music isn’t this ‘special’ kind of thing . . . I mean, you have three of the most amazing indie labels in the country there—Drag City, Touch and Go, and Thrill Jockey—and the feeling is ‘whatever’—it’s not that big of a deal.”

Soul and R&B form a subtle undercurrent to Spinanes music, alongside more apparent influences like the Pretenders and R.E.M. Live, Gates has been known to cover pop hits like TLC’s “Creep.” “Sometimes I just get obsessed with sounds in [certain] songs,” is how she explained her wide-ranging tastes. “I’ll think, ‘That sounds good! I wonder how I could use it?'”

The emotionally explicit “Greetings from the Sugar Lick,” for example, uses an organ sound straight out of a ’60s soul song. “Even though that’s so much a song that I would write,” Gates said, “the way we ended up arranging and producing it was because of soul records that I’ve heard—Memphis soul and Aretha Franklin.”

Like Franklin, Gates can say more about sexual longing and disappointment in a single line than a shelf of records by the whiny alterna-diva of the moment. Her romantic outlook often borders on the bleak: “Stuck listening for amusement/To tall tales of perfect unions,” she sings wearily on “Sugar Lick.” Yet Gates is an optimist at heart, albeit one with an acid tongue. The flippant title of “Slide Your Ass” belies the song’s naked honesty. It’s a smart woman’s stab at seduction: “I’m waiting on your call/I don’t wait for anyone at all/So lose the pose/Come a little closer.”

When Gates played one of the Spinanes’ first singles, 1992’s “Hawaiian Baby,” at Sub Pop’s recent 10th anniversary party, it sounded as fresh as though it had been written yesterday. Arches and Aisles has the same classic feel. In a perfect world, Gates would be hitting the touring circuit this summer to the strains of “Kid in Candy” on the car radio.