A few years back (ok, at least a decade now). I used to travel home on the holidays from my not-so-sleepy college town to the backwoods where I grew up. As you can tell from some of my brother’s posts on the area’s characters and atmosphere, it exerts a pull on you. And it exerted a pull on me: I would come home for each holiday break and return to the places I had been before. Every time I left, the pull of gravity gained upon re-entry almost tore me apart.
If you grow up in one place and one house your home town (or neighborhood) reigns mythic in your mind whether you leave or stay. For my brother, the nature of the place that nourished us has become a defining feature of his identity; for me, leaving it has been as definitive. When I was younger, every time I returned and left home was like the re-opening of a festering wound.
For a while, I always returned to the home of my best friend, the Lead Singer, where, with his help, I obliterated my sorrow chemically. This is not a sob-story or a point to trade drug-narratives, but a simple statement of fact. While we were pointedly not talking about the widening gulf between us, the anxieties of accepting our meager places in the world, or the challenges of trying to be something greater, we talked about music.
Or, rather, he talked about music and I listened. While our taste in music was often similar and while I too often only learned of music from him, there were many cases earlier in our lives when I just dismissed his suggestions. But something about the desperation of my homecomings and the chemical disintegration of barriers made me his avid audience in these years.
I don’t know how, but I had never heard of Nick Drake until the Lead Singer made me listen to Way to Blue on one of those snowy evenings. I promptly bought every album I could. We started listening to the Dandy Warhols and other similar artists. But the real gift I received during one of those visits was the Dirty Three.
The Dirty Three is a band only for the lack of a better descriptive term. An instrumental trio comprised of drums, guitar, and violin, this Australian group has the most unique and memorable sound of any vaguely popular music outfit from the past twenty years. The violin is electrified with a jumped-up guitar pick-up (famously on a lark way back in 1992/3 by the violinist Warren Ellis); the guitar plays rhythm and lead riffs. The drummer borrows from jazz, rock and all-comers.
The sound exists somewhere between classical and jazz-rock, foregoing any elevator music style or sound by avoiding the heavy 4/4 time of rock and the clear-repeated melody of last century’s more saccharine instrumental melodies. The music, as a result, can be charming, haunting, peaceful or maddening. It can lull you to sleep or rally you to war.
The other members of the group, Mick Turner and Jim White, like Ellis, have all spent their time in other more conventional bands (which you can read about on Wikipedia) . The reality, then, is that the Dirty Three is a side project. But it is to the other bands, in my opinion, what the Postal Service is to Death Cab for Cutie: the true genius separated from the run-of-the-mill.
Dirty Three’s albums have iconic and poetic names (Horse Stories, 1996; Ocean Songs, 1998; Whatever You Love You Are, 2000, She has No Strings Apollo, 2003; and Cinder 2005). The album covers are original paintings by the guitarist Mick Turner. Each one is both a visual and aural aesthetic treat.
These albums have been the soundtrack to the necessarily quiet moments of my life for over a decade. When I am not writing for this blog, I am still writing or reading. I have spent so many hours sitting in a library or a school office that I should be a bent and broken hunchback. Horse Stories was my tonic as I wrote book summaries in the early heydays of the internet; Whatever You Love You Are practically wrote my master’s thesis for me. Without She Has No Strings Apollo and Cinder, I would never have written a dissertation or published one article.
Unlike other musical loves, I have shared the Dirty Three with few. My wife has slept and studied to them. I have played them to quiet a crying infant. So central is this music to my life that I should be sending the band money from my monthly paycheck. I have always had a penchant for instrumental music—it doesn’t have the over-determined meaning of the lyric—but little patience for the longer compositions of classical fare. I find brass instruments and woodwinds a bit annoying (thus explaining my disinclination to listen to a good range of jazz). I was raised on a steady diet of strings. It is almost as if the Dirty Three was designed for me specifically. (Because, hey, that’s how the universe works.)
The only problem? I was afraid the band was over, dead and gone, consigned to the past. Each year that passed without a new album made me more certain that the canon was closed, that the albums in my hands and on my computer represented the sum total I would have for the rest of my life.
But now a new album has arrived, Toward the Low Sun. The album starts with almost a disorientating amount of distortion—a loop that sounds chaotic but resolves into a rhythm over frantic drums until a disturbingly slow violin melody comes to the forefront on the first track “Furnace Skies”. Dirty Three is not resting on laurels; this is not an album for quiet reading. This is not the sweet sorrow of Ocean Songs or the insurgent excitement of Horse Stories.
But the distortion and chaotic percussion fades out in the last twenty seconds of the song, the violin trills, a unitary buzzing note hangs on, and then silence. The second song “Sometimes I forget You’re Gone” presents an opening piano riff over a regular drum beat (heavy on a wood block) until the familiar violin comes in. But this track is still not typical of the Dirty Three—an irish tin flute synth appears later on. Throughout, the production value is higher and the sound crisper than on the earlier albums. By the end of the song, the sweetness of the title rises from the emerging melody.
The third track “Moon on the land” builds tension between tightly repetitive overlaid tracks of guitar and violin riffs and a loose melody. The percussion keeps the composition together with careful rim and snare work (and, thank god, at times you can hear the sticks click together; sometimes it feels so good just to hear real instruments). The fourth track could have appeared on almost any of the band’s opening albums—except that the guitar seems to take a more prominent role at moments and around 1:50 there is a surprising break in the rhythm and the sound: the song gets very quiet, we hear both stringed instruments and even the harmonics on the guitar until it builds back into a more forceful song full of 32nd notes on the violin and drum rolls on the snare. The quiet returns to end the song.
If my descriptions of the songs sound similar, it is not because the songs are so close but because my control of language is unequal to the task of describing this music. There does seem to be an overall theme through the music—a balance between chaos and order, a movement between silence and sound that always and inevitably ends with the former. It as if the songs, even the album as a whole, are allegories or microcosms for our senses, for the way that we process growing into awareness, burning so hotly, and quietly dying away. So, yes, this is a feel-good album.
Track 5 (“The pier”) starts with this quiet and builds the song through the interplay between guitar and violin. “Rain Song” begins with a brush on the snare drum, a close pluck-strum of the guitar with a base string left to hang occasionally. The rhythm sways more than is typical for the Dirty Three and the melody seems to move (and end) more decisively than others. Into this quiet order comes the distorted violin of track 7 (“That Was Was”) where the music altogether becomes more muscular in its phrasing but retains its essential pensiveness.
“Ashen Snow”, the penultimate track and my favorite on the album, begins like a soft jazz standard with a light piano picked out under longer expressive phrases on the violin while the percussion slips to an almost imperceptible snare and cymbals. With overlays and new tracks, the violin becomes an orchestra, a crescendo built for its contrast with the simple piano line that returns. The final tack on the album, “You greet her ghost”, suffers because it follows the nearly ecstatic epiphany of “Ashen Snow”. On the level of melody and composition it seems better suited to one of the earlier albums. Is it a homage or allusion? Such considerations ultimately matter little; it is merely a good song.
With seemingly increased production value and effective use of tracking and additional instruments, this is probably the ‘cleanest’ and ‘biggest’ sounding of the Dirty Three’s albums. But what hasn’t changed is the power of the band’s playing and composition. Their chaotic tracks still make me anxious and distracted; their crescendos still slow my heart in its chest.
It is far too early for me to rank this album in comparison to others. Upon first listen it doesn’t have the overall coherency of Horse Stories; it does, however, have a clearer sound and more energy than Cinder. It is at once recognizably part of a body of work and its own creature. If a band must wait so long to put out another album, I dare say that this one is good enough to justify the time.