2001: Rebecca Gates - Ruby Series

Rebecca Gates is the only constant on the three albums by The Spinanes -- 1993’s Manos, 1996’s Strand, and 1998’s Arches and Aisles. The group began -- and often stayed -- a duo, with Gates on vocals and guitar, and Scott Plouf on drums. By Arches and Aisles, Plouf had left to join Built to Spill and was replaced by members of the Sea and Cake and Tortoise. Later live version of The Spinanes would also include Ted Leo, while Strand features resonant backing vocals from a like-minded contemporary of Gates’s named Elliott Smith. All of which illustrates the mode and level at which Rebecca Gates makes music. 2001's Ruby Series expands her palette; it’s a beautiful, textured work, beguiling and frustrating in what it foreshadows.

Ruby Series is Gates’s only solo work, though the presence of high-profile Chicago-based musicians (including John McEntire and Brian Deck) links it closely to Arches and Aisles. Despite the atmospherics and sense of musical precision on display, there is a sharp distinction between this work and Gates’s previous songwriting with The Spinanes. While most everything by The Spinanes was firmly guitar-based, Ruby Series is a far more electronic work (even ambient at times), oriented around drifting keyboards and placing Gates’s voice in a more tonal, dolorous register.

This style reaches its apex on “I Received a Levitation,” which takes Gates’s yearning delivery of several lines and loops them atop slowly burgeoning keyboards, creating an effect both haunting and wistful. “The Seldom Scene” emerges with cocktail-lounge restraint and applies desire and critique in equal measure, with Noel Kuppersmith’s bass playing off the vocals and Mikael Jorgensen’s vibraphone. “Lure and Cast” brings the tempo up, with Gates crooning on the topic of desires. Over programmed beats she lyrically inverts the concept of the “sucker punch,” while the vibraphone tips its hat to a timeless cosmopolitanism.

With seven songs spread over half an hour, Ruby Series makes for a rich, saturated EP. At times, however, the atmospherics and the musicians’ tendency to circle around specific moments subverts some of Gates’s memorable tendencies as a songwriter. The give-and-take between steady keyboard pulses and minimal drumming on “Doos” is memorable, but the vocals feel submerged, climaxing with a wordless keening rather than a well-delivered line or cutting turn of phrase. The production, by Gates and Brian Deck, often seems like groundwork -- investigations of a number of distinct but related sonic directions in which the music might go. There’s a sense of exploration here, with all of the pros and cons that implies, though the announcement of a Ruby Series album due later this year does seem appropriate: there are still corners of these songs worth illuminating.

Since the release of Ruby Series, Gates has played sporadically, including a 2006 residency at the Knitting Factory that found her joined by Stephen Malkmus, Ida, and Fred Armisen; she also made an appearance on The Decemberists’ Hazards of Love. The bulk of her time appears to be dedicated towards art, including acting as one of the curators of the sound-art exhibition The Marfa Sessions. Her web presence suggests that new songs and a revived live band are in the works. All told, that’s a fine thing: Gates’ take on pop music is very much her own, and it’s an assured, justified one. Hers is a voice equally at home reporting on the world and living in it, a balance that few are able to achieve, much less navigate so deftly.
1 The Seldom Scene
2 Lure and Cast
3 Move Gates
4 In a Star Orbit
5 Doos
6 The Colonel's Circle
7 I Received a Levitation

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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