Mystery outside the machine

If the collapse of the traditional music industry teaches us anything, it's that those artists who've operated outside its gilded palaces have had the right idea all along.

Future of tradition: Roots music may form the core of Sin Ropas' musical alchemy, but this is Delta blues as seen through the lens of Luis Buñuel, or Appalachian folk re-imagined by William Burroughs.

The Marshall-based duo Sin Ropas, which celebrates the release of its fourth record, Holy Broken, at the Grey Eagle on June 13, took this as given when forming in the late-'90s. Birthed from the same Red Red Meat petri dish as fellow roots-music manipulators Califone, husband and wife multi-instrumentalists Tim Hurley and Danni Iosello have released homemade albums recorded in a 1920s cork-lined meat locker in Chicago; a former Nazi-worker townhouse in the former-East German port city Rostock; an abandoned library as the 2004 French Broad River flood roared past; and, for their latest effort, the basement of their mountaintop log cabin.

Totally punk rock DIY, right? You bet. But Sin Ropas taps into a much older musical self-reliance endemic to the Piedmont and Appalachian Mountains, including the custom of instrument making. Hurley's homemade musical curios on Holy Broken — giant thumb pianos made from dresser drawers, hurdy-gurdies featuring weed whacker wire, four-string cookie-tin guitars — carry on that line and color the band's hypnotic, End Times-take on blues and folk.

"There's a real strong do-it-yourself ethic in this part of the country, especially in the rural areas," Hurley says, citing the region's long banjo-making tradition as one self-sufficiency example. "I really like the fact that everything we do is also self-contained. And I guess making our instruments goes along with that."

So does making fiercely individualistic music. Hurley calls Holy Broken the band's most upbeat and accessible record, but if you're expecting, say, The Avett Brothers or Wilco, you'll quickly discover that "upbeat" and "accessible" are relative terms. Traditional roots music may form the core of Sin Ropas' musical alchemy, and this record may tilt more up-tempo, but this is Delta blues as seen through the lens of Luis Buñuel, or Appalachian folk re-imagined by William Burroughs: sinister layers of processed guitars, spare and primal beats, banished angel vocals, and elliptical lyrics that sift into your consciousness to reveal their meaning during dreams.

The opening tracks on Holy Broken mark much of what makes Sin Ropas' music so siren-like. The surging maelstrom "Fever You Fake" grounds Hurley's roiling guitars and solo skronk with a rollicking, insistent piano line and shuffling beat until synthesized pings and bleats take over and signal the song's deconstruction. The sinuous processional "Folded Uniforms" features slinky barre chords spackled with distant synth hums, processed guitar leads, and horizon-tilting keyboard swirls; Iosello's harmonies shadow her husband's weary falsetto like post fever-dream succor.

The title track's whispered narrative celebrates the flaws that make beauty beautiful, and the warm homemade-fiddle scratches on "Stolen Stars and Light" take some of the sting from its funereal pace and existential chorus: "What good is stealing light from another star?" The holiday dirge "X Is for Christmas," previously recorded for a VPRO radio show, is recast here with wheezing harmonium into a plangent wintry hymnal, while "Unchanged The Lock" and "Plastic Furs" share some of the same chugging Stones' vibe that characterized mid-era Red Red Meat.

Throughout, Hurley's lyrics – sometimes inspired by Iosello's fiction writing – don't so much tell stories as paint abstracts, their imagery and metaphors keys to the kingdom of the listener's imagination. As an example, Hurley cites a friend's take on "Plastic Furs," which included a man in a hallway dancing in furry, butt-less chaps and a cowboy hat.

"That's exactly not what I was thinking of, but now his vision of the song has transplanted mine," Hurley laughs. "It's a pretty common approach to songwriting, I think, to keep things amorphous. I like the flow of thought that occurs when you can't quite grasp what's being said."

This mystery is one of the primal elements of Sin Ropas' music; the other is its comforting familiarity. Like most worthwhile artistic endeavors, the craftsmanship offers straightforward entertainment (you could dance to a couple of these songs). Yet there's so much more swimming beneath the surface. Those extra dimensions reward effort, but effort is inimical to earning you a major label recording contract. That, not surprisingly, is fine with Sin Ropas.

"The quality of music hasn't suffered a bit from the troubles that record companies are having," Hurley says. "Like any artists, we'd like to make a living off of our art, but until things get sorted out that way, people are going to make music no matter what, and make art no matter what. We're not going to let anything stop that. I've set up little studios in my house and made little weird sounds and songs for something like 25 years now. I'm just going to keep doing it whether or not anybody else is listening or caring anyway."

[John Schacht is a freelance writer and Editor in Chief of Shuffle Magazine.]

who: Sin Ropas
what: CD-release show with projections from Luca DiPierro, openers Holy Holy Vine
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, June 13 (9 p.m. $8/$10. All ages.


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