(Deathbomb Arc, 2012)
If a guitar is strangled in a club and nobody paid money for a ticket, has it really made a sound? Sorry for the lame twist on the adage, but that’s really what we’re dealing with here, isn’t it? Band exists briefly in relative obscurity, this time in San Francisco (as opposed to, oh, I dunno, Missoula), dissipates seemingly into the annals – maybe, if they’re lucky – of local history … what’s the actual count of people who gave the band their time during their brief existence in the mid-1990s? Not just the West Coast either. I’d never heard of them, but I was on the other side of the country in the barely-there internet days, so does that give me a pass? Does that give anybody a pass?
Then you’ve got the pronounciation issue: Is it “rrrrrrrope,” with a prolonged opening consonant, or “Are-Rope,” like Brendan Canning’s pre–Broken Social Scene band hHead (I think that’s how it’s pronounced, anyway)? Or do you take the path of least resistance, like I do, and think of them simply as “Rope”? In the end it doesn’t matter, but I personally likely wouldn’t have given them a second thought based on their name alone.
…Unless of course they ended up doing something crazy, like opening up for Sonic Youth. Which they almost did for an entire tour. More on that later.
Thankfully, the good folks at Deathbomb Arc have rescued rRope from the ether (and us, in the same motion, from never being able to acknowledge the band) and scraped up their entire discography and packaged it in an elaborate 3-LP set called We Are You There. It contains their 1995 self-titled album, their 1998 CD Mahagonny, and an assortment of 7-inch, compilation, and live tracks, making it one-stop-shopping for all things rRope related. Not that you’d be able to find any of these tracks anywhere else, unless of course you happened to live in San Francisco or thereabouts and happen to live near a stubborn holdout of an actual record store. Even then, all traces of rRope LPs have likely evaporated from the used bins. You are a captive audience to We Are You There. You must embrace it.
As a newbie myself, digging in to the set proved somewhat of a minor challenge, as the only way to really do it is to start at the beginning and wade right in. Again, I didn’t know what to expect, so the “false start” into somewhat more experimental territory took me a bit off guard, which turns out to be OK once you go back to the beginning after finishing the whole thing. “Axis in Collapse” mimics a sort of scrambled jazz fusion, not really hewing to any specific beat. “Battery Davis” follows with a different sort of experimentation, as the song sounds as if it’s being broadcast through an old radio in an adjacent room. It sounds like a traditional “song,” though, but doesn’t help orient you as its function as a bridge to “Ivy Bottles,” which essentially sounds like a minute and a half of bottles breaking as a percussion device. Finally “Mercury” arrives and sounds like a song song, but even that dips into a prolonged period of near silence save for minor instrument scrapes here and there.
This is not a complaint – let me reiterate that as a whole, We Are You There makes a lot of sense. It’s just … quirky. Which is fine, as the band has been compared to fellow weirdos Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, and there’s a dash of U.S. Maple and Glenn Branca’s awesome Theortical Girls in the mix. And of course, you’re probably somewhat OK if you’ve got a healthy appreciation for the band’s onetime potential benefactors, Sonic Youth, and if you’ve gotten this far, you’re about to be rewarded with the best song of the thirty-one, the dissonant punk blast of “OK Nic,” slotting in for its first of three incarnations at track six, and solidifying my rRope fandom in its four and a half minutes. Guitars squeal and shriek, and barely-there spoken vocals simmer beneath the din. Real melodies peek through the squawk, and despite not existing within any sort of pop structure (I can’t think of a track off the top of my head with any sort of verse-chorus-verse structure that the Philistines will be hankering for), the composition as it is is immensely satisfying. The best part about the band is picking out your favorite noise or sound in a song and hoping to God it gets repeated – “OK Nic” has several of those instances.
“OK Nic” is certainly complemented well, with “Step Right Up” and “West Acre Lament” also from the self-titled debut, but, as with any band, it’s so much more interesting to dig into off-album tracks to get a sense of the compositional building blocks. “Stop It” is stuttery punk mayhem and “It’s a Hit” plays up the twangy vocals that shouldn’t work on these types of songs, but do. Both are from Mahagonny, as is “Pocket Song,” which I think, if I can make it out, is about what’s in some dude’s pocket. The 7-inch version of “OK Nic” is a bit rawer than the album version, and “West Tone” and “Yr House in the Yard” slather on thick doses of feedback and fuzz, proving that the whispers of “shoegaze” sometimes directed at the band aren’t total hogwash. There’s even an oompah song called, appropriately, “Oompah,” which is the highlight of the A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever 2 x 7-inch.
It’s impossible to leave a discussion of rRope without mentioning the five unreleased live tracks recorded at the Fillmore on May 27, 1998, their final show, and the one time they opened up for Sonic Youth. Rumor had it that SY had offered rRope a slot on their tour, but it was never to be, as the band dissipated following the Fillmore performance. One can only imagine how that would have turned out. We do, fortunately, have carefully preserved documentation as to rRope’s uncompromising live set. (For a loving tribute by one who was there, Deathbomb Arc/Foot Village’s Brian Miller, check out the product page at Deathbomb.) I say uncompromising because it doesn’t seem like they care to cater necessarily to what an audience might expect from a live rock band. Sure, there are insane blasts of room-filling cacophony, like “Low,” the only song on which there’s screaming, or “OK Nic,” whose melody sounds like laserbeams through miles of industrial piping in a live setting, but “Town Hall” is a much more contemplative affair, and “Over Hill” features a lone guitar and feedback, acting as a transitional point in the set. Even “Mercury,” with its minutes of near silence bookended by ferocious rock, is featured.
All this to say, it’s too bad rRope is no more, because they would have been one unique live experience. I wish I had seen them – I’m jealous of you West Coasters that did. But there isn’t a better way to present the band’s idiosyncracies and oddities, as well as their undeniable dynamic interplay, than We Are You There. I guess if there’s one lesson to be learned from rRope’s career, it would have to be, if Sonic Youth wants you to open for them on tour, you say yes!
RIYL: Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, U.S. Maple, Theoretical Girls, The Joggers