Sharps & Flats

The sad, dangerous sounds of the Dirty Three capture the wisdom of pain and experience.

Published March 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Melbourne, Australia, 1992: Smoke and sour ale crust the pub's fading wallpaper. A sad, dangerous sound fills the air. It's not quite jazz, not quite folk, not quite rock. A drummer, clad in a dark suit, hunches over his kit. A lanky guitar player stares at the ground, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. And the lead player, an unkempt violinist, never peeks out from behind his tousled locks. As the music reaches its feverish peak, he sways and dips his body like he's trying to hail a 747 on an airstrip.

That's the way it was during the Dirty Three's earliest hours, and really, things for them have changed only so much. Since then the trio has escaped that dark corner Down Under, toured with Pavement, played Lollapalooza, released four albums of captivating instrumental sagas and earned media acclaim from smudgy fanzines and Entertainment Weekly alike. And Warren Ellis, the scraggly fiddler, has put in considerable time with fellow countryman Nick Cave.

Cave's fascination with the dark side of the heart is a good clue to the Dirty Three's own consistent body of music. Although it's not as overtly theatrical as Cave's, it does embody its own sense of dark drama -- tragedy, of course, not comedy. The Dirty Three's music is instrumental, but it's more than aural film noir, more than mood without meaning. Ellis' leads are like Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser's vocals: Words are beside the point; the emotional meaning is eloquently clear. Jim White's drumming -- sometimes plodding, sometimes jazzily dancing -- provides both rhythm and texture. And guitarist Mick Turner seems to play in the same deep, rich shades of his thick-brush-stroke paintings, which adorn most of the band's albums.

The new "Whatever You Love, You Are" isn't startlingly different from those before it, but it does stake out some new ground. Out of the band's early tension-release form grew the relatively docile "Ocean Songs" (1998), a terrible hangover after an intoxicating evening of song. The new album mostly maintains that plodding pace, yet explodes during the epic centerpiece, "I Offered It up to the Stars & the Night Sky." There, two minutes of Ellis' solitary violin precede a languorous, eight-minute build toward the ferocious climax, and the song finally crumbles under its own weight.

By comparison, the album's other five tracks are calming, reliving some of the comedown energy on "Ocean Songs." The mournful "Some Summers They Drop Like Flies" laments some friends who have been drowned by life, much like Dirty Three's 1996 track "Sue's Last Ride," which Ellis often introduces onstage as a paean to a friend who ingested too much of a good thing. Sadness floods all of the Dirty Three's work, but it's a knowing sadness, a wisdom earned through pain and experience, born of ecstatic highs and lows.

By Lydia Vanderloo

Lydia Vanderloo is a freelance writer in New York.

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