Something sinister is brewing in the picturesque mountain town of Marshall, and we’re not talking about the developers who seem inexorably headed its way.
No, this is about the dark and intoxicating concoction of twisted Appalachia and psychedelic swamp blues that the husband-and-wife team of Tim Hurley and Danni Iosello — aka Sin Ropas — cook up in their mountaintop log cabin just outside Marshall. It’s a mix that has earned the duo gamut-running kudos from mainstream-savvy Rolling Stone to indie-leaning Pitchforkmedia.com, and one that’s now stitched into the fabric of this artist-friendly town.
Sin Ropas’ Sunday-night gig at the Grey Eagle — which also features filmmaker/musician/kindred spirit Brent Green — is the culmination of their first U.S. tour behind Fire Prizes, their incandescent third release that is just now seeing its stateside debut in a limited vinyl pressing, despite being released in Europe in 2005. (CD copies will be available at the gig.)
Recorded in Marshall’s old, abandoned library, Fire Prizes is a de facto chronicle of the 100-year flood that roared through the French Broad River in 2004. It is, Hurley admits, “soaked in desperation.” Driven by roiling waves of processed guitar lines, the insistent brush-and-snare work of Iosello, and elliptical narratives Hurley slurs together in his desperate-sounding falsetto, the music makes elegant accompaniment for cataclysmic times.
It’s also an excellent fit for Green’s animated films, which mix vaguely Southern gothic themes with a style of stutter-frame filmmaking best described by Green’s own Nervous Films moniker. Green has worked extensively with Chicago’s experimental roots alchemists Califone and provided them with evocative videos and CD extras, while they have played both improvised and recorded soundtracks for his short films. As Sin Ropas arose from the same Red Red Meat petri dish, audio experiments are also ingrained in their DNA.
“It took a few days to all come together on it, but it’s finally starting to sound like something other than just a racket,” Iosello laughs after the band’s recent sold-out Cleveland gig opening for Iron & Wine. “Tim and I were trying to be quiet and moody at first, but it turned into something totally different with Brent playing twangy, rock ‘n’ roll guitar.”
The sets have varied, with Sin Ropas reaching all the way back to their 2000 Three Cherries debut for songs to intersperse with Green’s short films. “It’s like a variety show,” says Iosello. “‘And now if you would please turn your attention to stage left.’”
A couple of years ago, the duo also had an opportunity to play to Green’s films when the old Marshall library still doubled as their studio. But after the 2004 flood, mold issues eventually forced them out and they moved their studio to their nearby cabin.
That coincided with Marshall’s recent growth as a popular destination for artists of all stripes, including other musicians from bands like Negativland and Man or Astro-man?, who have found refuge there. For their part, Hurley says they were drawn to the town’s “time-capsule” feel when they first moved there four years ago. Since then, it’s been hard not to notice Marshall’s increased profile. Two galleries have opened on Main Street, and the old Marshall High School building on Blanahassett Island has been refurbished into new art studios. But that’s not what really worries Iosello.
“If they allow alcohol here, then it’s just going to be the next hip town,” she says of Madison County’s plans to vote on their dry status. “There are people who’ve moved here and bought property and want to make money, and it was cheap because there was no beer and wine. But now they want that so they can raise their property values. I guess that’s smart for people who are investors, but it’s not good for the rest of us who moved there because of the way it was.
“But whenever I think that it’s changed that much, I just have to go downtown after five o’clock and there’s no one out, there’s nothing open. The occasional car may go by, but just about the only person around is the guy who makes moonshine.”
[John Schacht is a regular contributor to Harp and editor of the new regional music magazine, Shuffle.]
Nervous Films and Sin Ropas present their live music/film show at the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.), Sunday, Oct. 14. 8:30 p.m. $8 (232-5800).
who: Nervous Films and Sin Ropas
what: A live music and film show
where: Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, Oct. 14 (8:30 p.m. $8. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800).