If David Lynch were to assemble a hard rock band from scratch, chances are he’d come up with something that sounds a lot like Thin White Rope. The Davis, California-bred group defined its high-lonesome desert-rock with enough metallic edge to get the pulse pounding — and enough ominous surrealism to make the blood run cold. Perhaps the most twisted element in its mix was the quavering, tightly wound voice of frontman Guy Kyser.
Kyser reins in his more effusive impulses on Exploring the Axis, a debut that placed the band smack in the middle — rather than on the fringe, as the title might imply — of post-paisley underground West Coast rock. Kyser and Roger Kunkel are a clearly simpatico guitar tandem; they combine to issue a warm, fluid sound that parts only occasionally to allow the release of some overflow dissonance. There are clean, slippery touches of country guitar work and fuzzy little edges of deeper and darker chords. “Disney Girl” lopes along with Jozef Becker’s laid-back drum pulse as squealy shivers of feedback slip between the smooth flows of the melody. “Down in the Desert” marches off the disc with a martial beat and bopping intensity. Throughout the LP, Becker’s drumming speeds up to heighten tension but softens when the guitars or lyrics change mood. Laid between his constant changes and the warmth of Rope’s guitars, the twisted tales almost seem to make sense. (The cassette adds a bonus track, “Macy’s Window,” which was later included on Bottom Feeders. The CD adds a live radio take on Suicide’s “Rocket USA” and one more.)
Moonhead alters the modus operandi a bit, stretching song lengths and forging a provocative, embryonic bond between wiry, Television-styled guitar interplay and groove-conscious kraut-rock rhythms (held in place by Jozef Becker’s incredibly focused drumming). The next time you need to win a sucker bet, dare your mark to sit through all of the feral “Crawl Piss Freeze” in the dark.
As if to prove there are times when shirt-renders just wanna have fun, too, the band allowed itself to get a little loopy on In the Spanish Cave. Kyser’s voice — while by no means “normal” — sounds apropos in the eccentric hootenanny environs of “Mr. Limpet” and “Ahr-Skidar,” but the rustic accouterments don’t particularly suit the band. (The US and UK CDs are different. The American adds one bonus track, “Munich Eunich”; the British appends the entire subsequent Bottom Feeders EP as well.)
The six-song Bottom Feeders is much more effective, particularly a spine-tingling version of Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Loving You Baby” that sounds like it could have been recorded right after a trip to the crossroads. That mood was apparently intensified by another trek — this one corporeal — behind the Iron Curtain, where Thin White Rope became the first American indie band to tour the Soviet Union. The subsequent Red Sun EP is fittingly grim, both in its choice of cover versions (including Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity,” Marty Robbins’ “They’re Hanging Me Tonight” and Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning”) and its acoustic reworking of the title track, which further darkens one of Spanish Cave‘s bleaker numbers.
Released through a major label, Sack Full of Silver is the first full-on studio documentation of the band’s visceral improv style, rife as it is with songs (like “On the Floe”) that rise and fall on crests of post-Hendrix controlled feedback. To thicken the sonic miasma even further, Kyser and new drummer Matthew Abourezk perform a long, loving do-si-do in the framework of a faithful (if rocked-up) rendition of Can’s “Yoo Doo Right.” It all comes together here: Kyser’s lyrics and vocals have never been so direct and shattering (“Sometimes I make burns on my arms / ‘Cause it moves that feeling from my heart to my arms”), while a widened instrumental palette fleshes out the group’s sound.
Squatter’s Rights is a six-song EP of cover versions, only some of which have previously been issued on tribute albums.
On The Ruby Sea, Kyser (whose vocal affectations grew more irritating with each passing year) cements his reputation as manic sound sculptor and Americana-grounded troubadour. While he wrings some fittingly wrenching sounds from his six-string on songs like “Midwest Flower,” he seems more concerned with creating atmospheres, which he does most effectively on the title track’s netherworld ballet. Less edgy than its recent predecessors, The Ruby Sea does explore other planes: witness the neo-bluegrass “Tina and Glen” and the creepily sweet music box tinkling that imbues “Puppet Dog.”
Given Thin White Rope’s stellar live reputation, it’s surprising the band took eight years to release its first concert disc, but The One That Got Away was worth the wait. Recorded in Belgium (where the band was big), the generous two-disc set preserves the uniquely capricious experience of a TWR show, from moments of straight-ahead rock power (“Not Your Fault”) to death-knell balladry (“Some Velvet Morning”) to bulging-vein attempts to tear the roof and walls off the sucka (the electrifying howl “Eleven”). As ever, the band plays without the slightest awareness that it’s under audience scrutiny, which helps explain how, after more than an hour of ups and downs, Thin White Rope scours its quiver and pulls out both Bob Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues” and Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine.”
When Worlds Collide and Spoor were both released after the band split up so Kyser could dedicate himself to a career in botany (no joke: the guy’s got a graduate degree!). The albums overlap to some extent, but both possess worthwhile individual highlights. The Spanish release is more of a career overview, collecting 19 songs that span the first six years of TWR’s existence. Spoor is more of a trinket for diehards, with its loving demo/remix recapitulation of favorites, including a terrific rendition of the Stooges’ “Little Doll” and the primordial stomp “Ants Are Cavemen,” both from a Sub Pop 7-inch.