Sin Ropas: Trickboxes on the Pony Line

[18 May 2003]

By David Antrobus

Imagine alien archaeologists a few thousand years from now, picking through the abandoned remnants of human civilization after our all-too-brief earthly sojourn is done and mostly turned to toxic waste. Let’s say they’re sifting the irradiated soil of what was once the American Midwest. What would they make of the intricately designed stereo systems laying among the rusted weather vanes, computer circuit boards alongside ancient hand pumps? Would they have any concept of a rural Americana that co-existed with an increasingly technocratic dystopia, dusty relics amid the deadly bright baubles and trinkets?

Listening to Sin Ropas sophomore release is a little like being one of those ET explorers. You’re not even sure what Trickboxes on the Pony Line even means, but you do get a palpable sense of unease, and something you can only describe as plain wrongness, as soon as the first piping squalls of “Hands Inside” wriggle their awful way out of your speakers. And then there is that odd juxtaposition of the timeworn and tarnished with something shinier, newer. The contexts, meanings and their reference points are immediately slippery. This is blues. No, wait, it’s country. Um . . . folk? How about experimental post-rock, surely? Art rock? Goth, even? Well, there are elements of all these forms present here, certainly, but what emerges howling at their intersection is a very strange, disquieting monster indeed. A golem built of barn detritus, shit and silicon.

Sin Ropas (Spanish for “without clothes”) is Tim Hurley and Danni Iosello. Between them, they sing and play an array of instruments, with the former leaning toward guitars and knob twiddling, and the latter drums and keys. Red Red Meat (apparently defunct) and, more recently, Califone (alive and kicking) are branches on the band’s family tree, and Trickboxes was recorded on Germany’s “frigid Baltic coast” and in Chicago, Illinois. That’s it for background. Google for more if you’re so inclined; I want to talk about the music, this remarkable, elusive—damn near dangerous—music.

Those alien sifters of the future are not yet here. We’re still a viable species, however precarious. And the aforementioned faux pipes wind up and bray distantly on some desolate hillside, unceremoniously launching us into “Hands Inside”. Memories of past skirmishes stir. Bass-heavy distorted blues-rock takes over, dragging its weary bulk across a murky battlefield of desolate, reluctant vocals. It’s near impossible to make out the words, but they feel like imminent defeat. It’s dirty and sludgy. Time signatures speed and then slow. The song moves in and out of traditional structures, with the sudden squall of old-school guitar laments punctuating a recognizably classic Stones-like chorus. And then . . . the beeps and whistles of some ‘80s-era arcade game warbling (heartbreakingly pointless) to itself in some abandoned roadhouse beyond the lost backroads of nowhere in particular, and the merest shadow of acoustic slide guitar ushers us quietly out the back door . . . and this is just the opener.

A relentless barrage of powerful twisted blues ensues, song after song distorting our expectations, confronting convention, uttering terrible unspoken yearnings—with the plinks and wails of tradition fighting alongside confabs of whistling, keening, processed sound. Barely supported by a rhythm that tries to negotiate a sucking swamp, “Butter on Cane” reveals a relentless zombie lurch toward some unpalatable future. A guitar solo that sounds like ‘70s Iommi on even more drugs edges forward, and a scavenging vocal melody circles above as if waiting for something to die. And always, always, the background howl of guitars on the verge of tunefulness. Finally, as if realizing how emotionally engaged we are by now, Sin Ropas crank up the cinematic elements. There is the suggestion of distant church bells, as if calling the townsfolk to gather for some terrible unspoken duty. And then, as soon as they’re heeded . . . they’re gone. The song dies, re-absorbed by the landscape. Plinks, pings, hollow wood tocks, nothing.

This confused emotionality barely lets up. On “Candy Cobra”, Iosello’s loose tip-tappings on sundry flea market junk underlies her asthmatic harmonium exhalations, while Hurley’s ragged voice reaches back into something dusty-American and long-buried, yearning for that connection, yet simultaneously cringing at the swinging bright blade of the future. Here is a terrible need barely hinted at by the dense, mumbled words. An almost Native American drumbeat like the world’s last true pow wow rescues the song from implosion, and restores a measure of brief dignity. Cold comfort, of course.

“Floorboards” is simply stunning. All the elements—distorted blues guitar howl and shriek, achingly disheveled voice, down-tempo beats pummeling heaven’s ever-obstinate door—are present in this unstoppable train wreck of a song. Lyrical snippets drift on the flapping breeze (“dirty Christian”, “another Amazon”, “move their hands around”, “turn my vibration on”, “throw your body down”) like the calls of Gothic cowboy phantoms, enigmatic, barely discernible, tragically fated. Well-meaning guitars seem to wrap their sad splayed arms around the most sorrowful desperate melody you’ve ever heard, trying to cover for, protect by upstaging, the naked horror at the core. And all along, that lost beat drags itself reluctantly, stubbornly onward, like something that doesn’t yet realize it’s dead. With a kind of sick relief, hand to mouth, the song finally stumbles into the rusted rustic coda of cowbell, wind chime, squeaky weather vane, and falls still, quiet at last.

Worryingly, half the record still remains. It would be superfluous to describe it in detail. Sin Ropas continue priming the pump. Perhaps only “Buried With the Footmen” relents to any extent, although this soporific nod to the Psychedelic Furs still seems overshadowed by a growing terror, illustrated by wounded falsettos and a squeaky Dobro fadeout. Otherwise, the darkly sublime “Syrup Coat” and “Crumbs” hint at something unspeakable, mixing melancholic post-Kid A Radiohead harmonies with muted harmonium and a slide guitar that wails someplace off in the dark, haunting the murkier regions far beyond the pitiful campfire singing. At specific moments in either of these songs, Hurley’s and Iollelo’s damaged harmonies, alongside such pinched, confused guitar keening, will arrive out of nowhere and simply crumble your worthless hope-addicted heart.

The final song, “May’s Bitter”, appears in some ways to be a straight folk-country ballad, but the opening acoustic slide is deceptive, and images of rocks falling in sheer scree slopes begin to suggest themselves; furthermore, Hurley’s horrible ache is re-established, and your heart is almost stopped just as your toes try to tap out something recognizable. Like Wilco before them, yet far more harrowingly, Sin Ropas barely escape accompanied by an unruly soundtrack of broadcast snippets (short-wave noises whipping raggedy loops and whorls), before fading like context, like bearings, like last-gasp hope.

The blues. Roots. How do you assimilate this old, old music in our metal machine times? How do you replay it for a world that meets not only nuance but even genuine emotion with a shrug? I have no idea, although one thing’s certain: there are many more ways in which to deconstruct and reinterpret the infinitely malleable “blues” than, say, Jack White could ever have conceived of alone. Unheralded, innocent of hype, Sin Ropas just managed to find one of them.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/sinropas-trickboxes/