In 1993, I was miserable. I was attending a university I didn’t care for, I had no real aim or direction, and I simply wasn’t happy. I would commute to school, knockabout the campus, hanging out at the record store, library, or coffee shop, and then come home and hole up in my room listening to music, reading, writing, doing nothing. One afternoon I fell asleep listening to NPR, and was awakened by the sound of music from my radio. It was angular, in the sense that was very minimalist; simply a guitar and drum and a young woman singing in a detached, almost uninterested voice. She was singing about failure; more importantly, she was singing about watching others succeed while the world passes by, because you’re too confused and unsure of yourself. Even in my groggy state, I knew she was singing about me; more importantly, she was singing for me. I jotted it down the band name, The Spinanes, and while I don’t remember what Rebecca Gates had to say, I did know that I liked her music. It reminded me of Unrest and Tsunami—a very good thing indeed. I was also impressed that this was made by just her on guitar and a drummer, Scott Plouf.
The following Monday, I sought it out. I was determined to hear this band. Luckily I didn’t have to search too hard, finding it at the local record shop on tape. Just like the music, the cassette itself was visually striking; it featured a woman who is being accosted by a pair of hands from behind, both of which she is holding, in a manner that could be interpreted as either loving or aggressive. The image was on a stark green background, and the J-card offered only the most minimal of information. Making the album even more striking was the black cassette. Manos looked exactly as it sounded—sparse, mysterious, difficult. I didn’t know what the rest of the record would sound like; I just knew it was a plunge I had to take.
And I loved every minute of it.
Listening to Merge Records‘ reissue of the album, I’m happy to say that Manos still burns bright, an album that still splits the difference between sounding familiar and sounding quite unique. The only thing different for this reissue is a new cover with an outtake from the original album cover session. Everything else remains the same; “Noel, Jonah, and Me” “Manos,” “Grand Prize,” and “Dangle” still rock with youthful swagger and abandon, “Uneasy” and “Epiphany” still capture the wistful, pensive moments of young adulthood, “I Love That Party With The Monkey Kitty” is still an intoxicating antidote to Grunge, while “Basement Galaxy” still devastates me with its powerful, relatable angst about watching the world pass you by. Manos is an old friend, and it’s an old friend that hasn’t changed one bit.
The Spinanes would release two more albums, both very good–and both have been reissued digitally by Merge as well–but neither quite captured the magic of Manos. Then again, how could they? Manos was a unique experience, the capturing of lightning bugs in a jar so that you would have light to write your deepest fears in your diary at midnight. There have been Internet whispers that a reunion is coming this year; whether or not that is true remains to be seen. Doesn’t matter, though; Manos is a singular masterpiece that remains one of the best albums of the 1990s.