is gaunt back turned on the audience was the first I ever saw of Warren Ellis. The Dirty Three were supporting Pavement at the Phoenician Club in Sydney, which closed down soon after, when a young girl died on a cocktail of drugs and water. Ellis tore into his violin, the dissonant wail of his instrument goaded on by Jim White’s furious drumming and Mick Turner’s shimmering guitar. The sound filled the room with a music so dense it felt difficult to breathe. That was the first time I saw the Dirty Three, and although Pavement were in fine form that night—it was the first time I’d seen them too—they couldn’t compete with the spectacle of the Melbourne trio in full flight.
Then again, it could have been the moment as our legs dangled from the mezzanine balcony facing the stage. I doubt it though. There’s something enigmatic about the Dirty Three and it comes through in differing degrees from their chaotic live shows and their beautifully fluid records that swell into ornate unfussy epics. Early on, that sound lumped them in with the emerging post-rock scene (Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor!), but the emotional intensity and sheer musicianship of the trio’s work, and the laconic humour that underpins their live shows, sent them tumbling in quite a different direction.
At 19 tracks, the trio’s seventh album Cinder is long; the kind of length that might suggest a double-album prog-rock opus, but the reality is far more concise. It reminds me just how intoxicating great musicians can be. It has a beautiful simplicity that belies its sophistication.
Still, “Great Waves” arrives like a slap in the face you weren’t expecting. Chan “Cat Power” Marshall’s voice is soft, but it has a steeliness, too. Although individual members of the band routinely record and perform with singers like Nick Cave, Bonnie Prince Billy, Smog, and Low, vocalists have never appeared on the group’s previous albums and this time there are two. Equally fascinating, but much less immediate is Sally Timms from the Mekons on “Feral.” There are even bagpipes, which lift the album to one of its few emotional peaks, the triumphant and extremely rocking “Doris.”
Ellis’s violin tone is rich and evocative, effortlessly riveting. White’s drumming is relaxed—he often seems to almost accidentally hit on the right beat at the right time—but it’s always right on. Turner strums away at his guitar. After 13 years, this isn’t the angry old Dirty Three with the raw, distorted violins and swelling explosive finishes; this is an older, wiser band capable of concentrating the emotional range of their tempestuous earlier work.
Reviewed by: Matthew Levinson
Reviewed on: 2006-01-24