March 2012

Arts & Letters

Thirty Words

By Robert Forster
The Dirty Three on stage at Fowler's Bar in Adelaide, 2010. © Ben Searcy
The Dirty Three’s 'Toward the Low Sun'

Occasionally, just by looking at the song titles on a record sleeve, you can tell an album is going to be great. There is a rightness to their form and meaning that, when linked to the artist’s or band’s history, alerts you to a quality album in the offing. Here, for example, are some of the tracks on the new Bruce Springsteen album, Wrecking Ball: ‘Rocky Ground’, ‘Easy Money’, ‘You’ve Got It’ and ‘This Depression’. I’m a Springsteen fan, and also aware that the Boss will never challenge Morrissey when it comes to flamboyancy and wit – although it would be wonderful to hear him cover ‘You’re the One for Me, Fatty’ – but these song titles, shop-worn and spare even by Springsteen standards, offer little encouragement to listen to an album that would seem to be stuck in old ground.

The Dirty Three present another approach. After the enigmatic, mostly one- or two-word song titles spread over the 19 songs on their previous record, Cinder (2005), they return with Toward the Low Sun, a nine-track album containing ‘You Greet Her Ghost’, ‘Moon on the Land’, ‘Furnace Skies’ and ‘Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone’. The very fire and cut of these titles suggest a band intent on roaring back after an absence, or at the very least signal to those with an eye for the aesthetics of song names and how they scan as a quick visual clue that here is something worth investigating.

The band formed in Melbourne during the early ’90s in a manner few successful bands do: musician mates getting together to play once a week in a friend’s bar. The three players were Jim White on drums, Mick Turner on guitar and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis primarily on electric violin. Decisively there was no vocalist engaged and the songs were scratchy, seemingly semi-improvised instrumentals. The band fit the times – grunge, ‘slacker’ and then post-rock – and on the back of sensational live shows – Warren Ellis being one of the most charismatic Australians ever to step onto a stage – the group, through heavy touring and a series of very strong early albums, managed to establish a worldwide profile. The key was the uniqueness of their sound and a willingness to tinker and push at its boundaries. They looked like an art–music ensemble or jazz band, but had a career most rule-bound rock bands could only envy. The three members live in different countries, are involved in other bands and side projects – Ellis is in the Bad Seeds and Grinderman – and pick their moments to strike with their beloved ‘home’ band with great care.

Toward the Low Sun was recorded in Melbourne by American-born, Australia-based engineer Casey Rice, who has been responsible for a number of fine records over the last years, few better than the 2009 self-titled debut LP by Songs. His studio approach – if such a thing can be abstracted from someone who has worked with rock, indie, experimental noise and jazz groups – involves an attention to ‘pure’ sound and the ability to capture natural dynamics in the recording process. You don’t go to Casey Rice to make a laboured, layered pop record. The intentions of both band and engineer are made clear from the bang of album opener ‘Furnace Skies’, where a furious jam already seems to be underway, centred on a distorted guitar riff. At the four-minute mark the song cracks, the clamping down on feedback and the dying of the drums a sign, knowingly given, that the band is playing live together in the studio. That statement made, and a seven-year gap between recordings dramatically ended, the beautiful cascading piano of track two, ‘Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone’, is ready to take the album off on its journey.

The sound of the band is this: White, in contrast to most rock drummers, who either overplay or restrict themselves to four-on-the-floor time-keeping, drums in an open percussive style – reactive and sensitive to the dynamics of the music and his fellow players. Turner can be seen as the straight man of the group. Unlike White or Ellis he rarely solos, preferring to lay picked notes or strummed metallic chords into the mix. He is the glue, and if he did forsake rhythm for noodling lead guitar, the band might well collapse. And Ellis? Well, it’s now part of rock myth that at an early show (the first?) he fitted an electric-guitar pick-up to his violin and in the process took the sound of the instrument and its setting in a rock band away from playing supportive melodic lines with classical music pretensions to a raw, thick, exploratory tone ready in Ellis’ hands to honour the gods of Hendrix and Coltrane. And if all of this points to a group playing hard-to-reach music, that’s not the case – for all their wildness and unconventionality, the Dirty Three are also ‘sweet’: their other weapon, besides originality of line-up, is melody.

There are no sudden shifts or wild harmonic turns; a Dirty Three song is a mood that is established early in the number and which the group, through the chemistry and skill of their playing, then arrange with succeeding peaks and troughs. The songs, though, are substantial and after a brief mid-album lull – ‘Rising Below’ and ‘The Pier’ being the one time on the record when a song is followed by another too similar in tempo – the album swings out on four great numbers, the best of which, ‘That Was Was’, has the band launching itself over the abyss into heroic rock-ballad changes. It shouldn’t work, but the sheer emotive force of the music and Ellis’ scrapping lead-guitar-like lines pull off something truly astonishing. It’s a matter of kinetic flash and the drama of live performance, very much the trademarks of the album.

And there are the song titles. They must have extra importance for an instrumental band. Where most artists have reams of lyrics to flesh out stories, the Dirty Three have, album title included, a mere 30 words. Sometimes the titles match the mental images the music evokes: ‘Ashen Snow’ is the perfect name for a very pretty piano-led ballad. ‘Moon on the Land’ sounds like moon on the land. Others are harder to read; what waters does ‘The Pier’ emerge from in connection with its dense clang? And there is the album title itself – the most cryptic of all. The band is travelling to a speck on the horizon, their new album another powerful posting from along the way.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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