It's Grammys night in Los Angeles, so let's head up to the North Carolina mountain town of Marshall to roll out the red carpet for the inaugural NAPPY Record of the Year.
In case you missed it -- and it was easy to miss, which is one point of this tale -- the Marshall-based band Sin Ropas released its third record, Fire Prizes, in Europe. The CD came out in October 2005, on the Netherlands label Konkurrent/Zeal (www.konkurrent.nl). Though the band's previous release, Trickboxes on the Pony Line, was acclaimed in 2003 by both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, Fire Prizes has yet to find an American label.
Tim Hurley and Danni Iosello are the husband-and-wife team who make up Sin Ropas, and their timeless brew of twisted Appalachia and electric swamp blues is sufficiently sinister to make Jack & Meg sound like Donnie & Marie. Sin Ropas excels at turning desolation into transcendence -- Trickboxes was recorded near the barren beaches of the Baltic Sea. That yen for the remote explains the appeal of Marshall, a town that time has bypassed as much as the highway to Johnson City, Knoxville and other points north of Asheville did 30 years ago.
"We were both attracted to the desolate feel of the town," says Hurley, who graduated from the same Red Red Meat petri dish that spawned Califone and Loftus. "There's this feeling that something's going to happen, but nothing ever does. It's just got this otherworldly, movie-set feel to it. It's like going back in time, literally, to the '50s."
Into this Mayberry postcard roared the 100-year flood of summer 2004. While the French Broad River carried away pieces of people's lives, Hurley and Iosello wrote and recorded Fire Prizes in Marshall's old abandoned library. Not surprisingly, the record is soaked in desperation. "It's longer on disaster than redemption," Hurley admits.
But if you feel buoyed by honest, fiery music, Prizes is like rite-of-passage purification. It roils with roaring guitars, creaking organs, howling voices and E-Bow sirens, all urged along by Iosello's brush- and stick-work. Some songs unfurl at a languid, nightmare pace. On others, Hurley's guitar is a battering ram of thick, sinewy bar chords and waves of processed leads enveloping the listener in one blissful crescendo after another.
The disc's American fate may yet turn around. But for Hurley and Iosello, who have begun work on their next record, time moves on, even in Marshall.
"I'm not really concerned about the money part," Hurley says. "I can record as many records as I feel like with the gear I've got right now, and that's all I care about."
• Best Start to 50-State Discography: Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)
• Most Impressive Phoenix Act: (tie) Silver Jews, Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City) -- four years between releases, drugs, depression, suicide attempt; Vashti Bunyan, Lookaftering (DiCristina) -- 36 years, family, farming.
• Spit-Take Sophomore Effort: Menomena, Under an Hour -- Music for Modern Dance (FILMGuerrero)
• Most Fruitful Cross Pollination: M. Ward's re-interpretation of Louis Armstrong's "Sweethearts on Parade" (Transistor Radio/Merge)
• Cheapest Fare to Southwest: Friends of Dean Martinez' Lost Horizon (Aero)
• Best Record by a Marley Not Named Bob: Damian Marley, Welcome to Jamrock (Universal)
• Strangest Bedfellows: Slo-core king Mark Kozelek re-casting Modest Mouse music on Tiny Cities (Caldo Verde)
• Best Booty Shaker: Beck, Guero (Interscope)
• Most Reverb: (tie) My Morning Jacket, Z (Badman); Richard Hawley, Coles Corner (Mute)
• Best Non-Tortoise Tortoise Record: The Drift's Nouema (Temporary Residence)
• Best Headphones Workout/Tribute Album: The Dimension Mix, a Tribute to Dimension 5 Records (Eenie Meenie), featuring Stereolab, Apples in Stereo, Oranger, Eels and Beck
• Top 3 Signs of a Healthy Local Music Scene: Pyramid's The First American; Alternative Champs' Welcome to Fort Awesome (MoRisen); Anthony Hamilton's Ain't Nobody Worryin' (So So Def/Arista)
UP AND RUNNING:
Raleigh rockers Patty Hurst Shifter are back with their sophomore effort, Too Crowded on the Losing End (Evolution). It's more polished than their debut and should be a hit with people too drunk to recall Whiskeytown's rockers ... For another honest shot of Southern Rock, pull up a barstool next to Birmingham, AL's Taylor Hollingsworth; Tragic City (Brash) is all fat riffs, fatter hooks, lovers, liars and losers -- some kids just nail it right out of the gate ... Caveat emptor for early fans of Cat Power; Chan Marshall's The Greatest (Matador) features the Shy One channeling Dusty Springfield with a host of Memphis heavy hitters, and the glossy production is a far cry from the trellis-work of Moon Pix, but still well worth investigating ... Coming Soon: Scottish soft/loud/softer/really loud instrumentalists Mogwai release Mr. Beast on March 7, and earn our pick for Road Trip Worthy Show of the Month when they visit Asheville's Orange Peel on March 9.