Thin White Rope
As an expatriate of the People’s Republic of Davis, CA [1984-1993], I must first acknowledge the appearance, at least, of a conflict of interest in reviewing these albums. Full disclosure: I saw Thin White Rope play live dozens of times: in Davis, Sacramento, San Francisco, and LA. I shot handheld VHS tapes of at least two shows (that I can remember), and Lisa Fancher at Frontier Records once promised (threatened?) to make me sign waivers for the footage… even though no one outside the band and its management has ever seen the videos. Yet.
I interviewed the band for Tower Records’ PULSE! magazine. I interviewed them on UC Davis station KDVS while certain band members were in … a certain altered state of some sort or another. I drank with them, well, on several occasions, which isn’t really such a big deal, because most other Davis residents did too, during the period in question. I saw them do some immoderately unsavory offstage things at least twice, but that was okay — because, in mutual-deterrent context, they likely witnessed me doing, hey, some crazy shit, as well.
Thin White Rope’s Davis shows at the Aggie Hotel and the Olive Pit rehearsal space over the years are things of legend; if, by any chance, according to local Pete Lohstroh, you desired your virtual Davis cred card to be punched, it was required that at least a tallboy of cheap beer be spilled on your jeans and sneakers (or, knowing Davis, Birkenstocks) at more than one of those shows.
(Singer/guitarist Guy Kyser lost a bet and played the entire show naked (other than the necktie).
Nudity. Alcohol. Other, uh … stuff. Full disclosure or bragging rights? You make the call. Regardless, enough nostalgia. For now, anyway. Where was I?
Frontier Records reissued remastered versions of the band’s first two albums on colored vinyl, CD and digital in March of 2018 via its Bandcamp page. As with most things Bandcamp, you can buy the physical albums and/or download FLACs, WAVs, AIFFs, MP3s or almost anything else digital. The LPs have download coupons and lyric sheets, as well.
Exploring the Axis
Exploring The Axis (Bandcamp, Amazon) was the band’s debut, released in 1985. It was classified by many as “cowpunk” and/or emblematic of the “paisley underground” of the day. Those categorizations were every bit as facile as you might suspect; yeah, okay, the album contains a song called “The Real West,” and “Dead Grammas On a Train”‘s wounded canter might be considered country-inflected if one was hanging from a rhetorical ledge, desperately in need of a nearby genre handhold.
But if you put a gun to my temple and coerced a pigeonhole from my piehole, I’d likely just blurt out “acid.” Singer-songwriter-guitarist Guy Kyser used to introduce the band’s feedback-soused cover of Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning” with “this song’s about waking up with an acid hangover and a boner.” It wouldn’t be that big a stretch to wager that some of TWR’s best material was written under (or, at least, inspired by) similar conditions.
Axis kicks off with “Down in the Desert”, led by Jozef Becker’s martial drumbeat and slashing, dissonant guitars from Roger Kunkel and Guy Kyser. The U.S. version of the album cover displays a roughhewn sketch of a disemboweled desert dog. It doesn’t get any prettier from there.
Karl went south and walked out on his hometown
He said it was nowhere, he’d find a new job and stay there
Karl went south like he’d fade if he stayed there
It scared him, he felt claustrophobic and needed some air
Something affected him down in the desert
Karl went south with a sigh of relief
Said he’d be happy with anything different at all
Karl went south but he went through the desert
A Mexican influence followed him home in the fall
Karl came back but he isn’t the same
He came very quietly, no one was very surprised
Karl came back and he works and he smiles
But if you look closely there’s still something scared in his eyes
Axis‘s drums are processed in a manner representative of the trend of the day — snares and toms reverse-gated and reverbed, often for emphatic punctuation at the end of a bar, as in “Disney Girl”. But on the remastered LP, the most obviously altered (and I mean that in the best possible way) element is the guitars — tweaks I’ve never heard on previous LP and CD versions. The see-saw feedback squalls at the end of each refrain in “Disney” sling fresh grit; much of the studio processing lost on the original version is finally evident. During some of the sustained chords on certain songs, there’s ring-modulated and phase-churned effects, such as on the decaying notes on “Lithium”.
And how does Stephen Tesluk make his bass sound like a plucked ‘n’ flanged trumpet on “The Three Song” and “Exploring the Axis”?
Or how about when Kyser growls and whines “I tried and tried to use a razor…” on the final line of “The Three Song,” and the last syllable extends over 30 seconds and prowls beneath the din, only to resurface and transform into a Luciferian, pitch-shifted caterwaul?
Meaning: in its original master, it snarled.
The remastered vinyl version, however, ROARS.
Recommended: a tube phono preamp, large speakers, and cool neighbors. All the better to have your ears pinned back by Kyser’s polyp-rupturing rasp and his and Roger Kunkel’s proto-metal guitar barrage.
The band’s ardor for the open-ended jams of Neil Young/Crazy Horse are semi-documented folklore, but Moonhead validates such apocryphal claims: the claustrophobic gallop of “Wire Animals.” The lurching, metallic blast of “If Those Tears.” The lengthened closing-jam version (’til now cassette-only!) of “Take It Home.”
And, not to put to fine a point on it, but that decelerated bridge following the ending vocal portion of “Take It Home” (which starts around 3 minutes in) never fails to make me wonder if TWR somehow discovered a an existentially ambiguous portal between good and evil — and just decided it was too fun (or dangerous) to share any further. Even the extended version’s not long enough, but it’ll do, however ambiguously. This was a LOUD band, and Moonhead got the voluminous point across.
Moonhead is the sound of a band at the top of their game. At the time, I mean. They hadn’t peaked yet.
The Spanish Cave
The band was never happy with the mastering job on the 1990 release, and it’s disappointing that the new master doesn’t further improve on the original. If they couldn’t fix it in the mix, I was hoping this one could be pulled out of the fire in the remaster. Dunno if it’s the overuse of compression, or underuse of studio volume, but it’s still . . . well, too polite.
Live shows from this era were anything but apologetic, especially the near-perfect din of “Elsie Crashed the Party,” “It’s OK”‘s feedback-driven chaos (imagine dying dinosaurs bleating across tar pits), and the monolithic Morricone homage, “Red Sun.”
(the final 3.5 minutes of this one benefit from being played at foundation-shaking volume. Just a hint.)
Sack Full of Silver
When Sack Full of Silver (Bandcamp, Amazon) was released in 1990, Thin White Rope was tired (but not yet exhausted) from five years of US tours to a sub-cult of fans, and, presumably, baffled by nearly-unanimously positive album reviews — a quality and quantity of reception that was inverse to CD and LP sales.
The thing that kept them going was increasingly rabid adulation from live audiences in Europe. Perhaps it was simple maturation, but maybe it was that overseas fanbase that helped open the band up to the possibilities of progressive rock … because Sack Full‘s arrangements and song structures, while, thankfully, nowhere near ELP-like in complexity, showcased the band’s evolution in songwriting and composition.
The first tracks of the album spotlight Kyser’s weirder-than-ever, darkly psychedelic imagery. The cover of Can’s “You Doo Right” is a perfectly-paced salute to the krautrock klassic with a prowling, rumbling, proto-Liebezeit foundation of laid by drummer Matthew Abourezk. The tribal propulsion of the band’s live rendering of the song is captured here, within a ethereally leavened mix of atonality and melody, followed by — natch — a feedback-driven finale. It’s a heartfelt presentation that brought the song’s considerable pedigree home to a fresh generation of indierockers.
“The Ghost” follows the cinematic “Americana” with a melody purloined from “Amazing Grace” and twists the hymn with an earthshaking chord sequence and drunken, waking-dream lines like
I felt like a widower, stoned, watching a film of his wedding day.
Kyser’s lyrical talents, largely hinted at on previous albums, break out into major-league territory on a “Whirling Dervish”:
The wind licks off the tar paper with sandy cat tongues
Numberless horned bullets lodge in a lover’s lungs
At last I see the ghosts which have been with me all along
Spinning on an axis pointed straight up at the sun
When the substance of our life together becomes too much
And you threaten to remove the whirlwind of your touch
I am only a piece of trash up a mile high
Grabbing at the falling sand which held me in the sky
Then there’s “Triangle Song,” where the protagonist (no prizes for guessing who that might be) recounts staring at certain constellations while burning his arm with cigarettes in a certain geometric formation in order to stay awake so he can get the van and the band to the next tour stop.
The Ruby Sea
1991’s The Ruby Sea (Bandcamp, Amazon) was Thin White Rope’s final studio album. It’s stripped down, compared to its predecessor, featuring the highest-quality recording and mixing of any of their work, and its soundstaging and presentation benefits from remastering more than the other four albums.
“Puppet Dog” is a standout, if, for no other reason, the absurd counterpoint between the delicacy of its arrangement and the perversity of its lyrics (although the surface noise on the quieter passages of the latter verges on dealbreaker status, unfortunately). “Midwest Flower” is a tense stomper whose dynamics are up there with band’s most intense, distorted moments. “Hunter’s Moon”, a loping, gorgeous classic, subtly builds on itself from verse to verse, and that dynamic sums up much of what makes Thin White Rope great. It’s the high-water mark on a wonderful album.
On first listens, the pressing quality of all five releases is good, considering they’re all on colored vinyl — not clear, which is second only to the black variety for quality and durability. On repeated listenings, though, there’s increased surface noise, meaning the vinyl is breaking down a tad every time the needle’s dropped. Pressing-plant turnaround on colored vinyl is much faster than on black, so production backlogs aren’t such an issue when trying to hit a street date. So it goes. The Ruby Sea sounds the best of the five on LP, with Moonhead a close second. If you have to pass on any of the vinyl, let In the Spanish Cave go — for now.
I’d recommend the LPs for completists and collectors; if you’re new to the Thin White Rope fray, download AIF or FLAC and play as loudly as you can get away with, and maybe dip your analog toes in Moonhead for a start.
These reissues, whether digital or vinyl, are more than necessary; fans will marvel at the remasters when played at the proper — and, by that, I mean, of course, improper — volume. And the music-buying (or streaming) constituency of newcomers will benefit from having its collective nose rubbed in the Thin White Rope catalog.
Why? Because nobody was making music remotely like Thin White Rope’s at the time, and few could hope to attain the musical or lyrical heights the band reached since and before it packed it in 1992.
Album sales? Pffft. 25+ years later, these recordings better those of any alleged peers, now or since.
When I think of favorite groups that are no longer with us — well, there’s a lot of bands I miss.
But there’s none I miss more than Thin White Rope.
About the Author
Paul Ashby has, gratefully, retired from the music business but still can’t resist sniping from the sidelines from time to time.
He lives in Contra Costa County, California, with his partner Kate Burkart and their cats, Wafflehead and Timmy.
He is approaching the tipping point where he enjoys gardening and landscaping more than music. We’ll see how that pans out.