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coverpic flag US - Ohio/Oregon - Luna Kafé - Full Moon 19 - 05/11/98

Arches And Aisles
Sub Pop

coverpic Scrawl
Nature Film

When I listen to the Spinanes, a single image comes to mind; that of a young woman playing acoustic guitar in a dark room. Her back is turned to a picture window that frames a perfect, bustling metropolis, lit up and strung out on adrenaline late into the night. While the chanteuse absorbs this energy, her songs ultimately reflect a paradox of living in a city this large, that one can be boxed in with millions of other souls and yet feel so paralyzingly alone.

This is an arresting image. Unfortunately, that's all there is - one frame in a stage of development. I'm not getting everything that happened. I don't feel like I'm at the show, where I'm part of the development and the musician's melodies and insights are as immediate as a hot breath down my throat. It's not even like watching a live performance long after the fact through the wonders of video, where it's cleaned up and I don't have to deal with the sweat, the mosh-pits, or other unpleasantries of nightclubs and live music, but I can still get a sense of what it felt like to Be There. No. This is a moment in the development of an artist - an important moment in that continuum, certainly, but one taken out of context, and one where I feel the distance of both time and the large slab of glass standing between me and her.

It's not that the Spinanes (Rebecca Gates at this point, really) is a bad band, or that Arches And Aisles is an irredeemable album. The songs are smartly written, with lush, beautiful melodies rubbing shoulders with rough-hewn execution and production. The lyrics punctuate tangible, well-realised imagery ("the cold sweat of make-out") with strings of silly vulgarities like "hot shit, sugar and liquor". It's intelligently written and thought-out, and gets an A for effort, but somehow I feel at arm's length with so much of the material.

Most of the problem with Arches And Aisles is truly my problem, but credit should also go to Gates' approach to the material. The lyrical themes offer some truly potent lengthwise looks at love, but she intellectualises her emotions. It's like going back to a diary entry about a wrenching breakup and edit it for a more universal approach, only to erase some of the emotion that goes with those experiences. Likewise, the record has some moments where you just have to suck in your breath, the melodies are so beautiful. Unfortunately, something seems to have happened between the time the melodies were written and when they made it to recording, buried as they are under lo-fi effects and extemporaneous instrumentation.

All in all, Arches And Aisles is a thoroughly good album. However, there's just too much space between Rebecca Gates' insights and lullabies and my observations as an audience member for me to be as wowed as I should be. If you want to hear the female singer/songwriter type as imagined by movie director Atom Egoyan (Exotica), this is as good a place as any.

Myself, I'm more drawn to the stories of Alison Anders - tactile rather than tactiurn, with spare, simple truths, an immediate approach and catharses that feel like a kick in the gut. Luckily, music for this unreleased movie can be found on Nature Film, the new album by Ohio natives Scrawl.

On previous releases, the trio's distinctive tilt on the pop-punk hybrid left an abrasive aftertaste, marked by tinny production, harsh, discordant musicianship and nihilistic undertones. Since then, the scope of their music has widened from sloppy guitar rock to humming, roots-tinged punk. While their major-label debut Travel On, Rider helped them focus their sound and sand down aspects of their approach that might possibly alienate listeners, Nature Film finds Scrawl perfecting the art of pacing.

One of the things that made Scrawl's previous full-length go-rounds so hard to take was how relentless they were. Not that they were excersises in earsplitting decibels, but the layering of meaty riffs atop sketched-out melodies, and the buzzsawed approach of said same, made repeat listenings tedious. Part of Nature Film's appeal is that they're able to accent a series of loud-hard-and-fast tunes with a reflective, blues-influenced track like 11:59 It's January, which makes both songs that much more effective.

In addition to being such an effective contrast with what surrounds it and embodying Scrawl's musical range, the aforementioned 11:59 represents growth for the band. The song was originally released as a 1993 single for Simple Machines' Working Holiday series (split-singles released by this charming Washington DC based indie-label - editor's note), where it was done in a style closer to Scrawl's trademark full-steam-ahead sound. The new version is more stretched out, as if singer Marcy Mays is thinking the lyrics through, and - ironically, for a blues tune - more hopeful. This, along with a new version of Clock Song (Go, Girl, Go), makes for a nifty time capsule. Listening to both songs back-to-back with their original versions makes you realise how much Scrawl has grown as a band, both in sound and approach, and perspective and emotional maturity.

What you, the reader, are probably asking yourself right now is: Why? Why did she review Nature Film and Arches And Aisles in one joint article? After all, what both bands have in common is that they're indie-identified, female-fronted ensembles whose names begin with the letter S. The new Scrawl album intrigued and enthralled me in a way I could not put into words, and in some ways I had to hear the Spinanes to put my finger on what I so love about Nature Film. At the end of the day, I would imagine Rebecca Gates would be sitting in her room writing in her diary, while the two girls and a guy of Scrawl would hit the pavement, trying to work with people and figure out if the ideas in their heads mesh with what's really out there. And I find that I'm more interested in dancing in the streets to their ambivalent, plaintive and ultimately thrilling tintinnabulation.

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