A luminous soundscape
Australian trio the Dirty Three make the music you hear in the secret geography of dreams
It is as if the music comes out of some dark landscape that the rest of us see only in our dreams. At times, the landscape is lyrical: a moving seascape dotted with abandoned shacks, moving grasslands and luminous, fog-shrouded mornings. Other times, the landscape is frightening: dark storm clouds; huge, empty deserts; the rusting and haggard skeletons of abandoned ghost towns.
For the past 11 years, Australian instrumental trio the Dirty Three have been creating music that is not so much the soundtrack to this landscape, but rather the landscape itself. Now, with the release of the band’s seventh studio album, She Has No Strings Apollo, the trio manages to find new territory to create and explore—territory that combines the lyrical and the terrifying to reach a sense of dimension and depth.
It is this dimension and depth that the band will bring to Sacramento later this week as its current tour makes a stop at Harlow’s. But perhaps it’s necessary to go back first before going forward—back to Melbourne, Australia, in 1992, when violinist Warren Ellis, drummer Jim White and guitarist Mick Turner formed the Dirty Three from the wreckage of various other bands. Throughout the years that followed, the trio went on to release six full-length studio albums and a number of live projects, singles and EPs. Each new project has displayed a steady strengthening of the band’s sense of definition, arguably coalescing for the first time with 1996’s amazing Horse Stories, an album that moved from quiet lyricism to explosion and back again.
It is a self-definition that shares much with a line from poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Beauty is only as close to terror as we can endure.” Now, as the band members return from a variety of other projects (including Ellis’ long-standing engagement with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and White and Turner’s work with Chicago soundtrack supergroup Boxhead Ensemble), the band’s newest release explores the depth of this relationship as effectively as any music the band has ever created. Here, the Dirty Three retain their trademark sound but somehow approach it from a new direction. From the opening track, “Alice Wading,” Ellis’ staccato picking of the violin strings draws out a theme that seems to inform much of the album’s vision, a theme supported, altered and developed by Turner’s churning guitars and White’s drum work. The trio seems particularly incendiary on “Sister Let Them Try and Follow,” a piece that places White’s drum style in the forefront via a combination of military cadence and crumbling explosions of sound. The effect is like the soundtrack to a slow-motion train wreck: the perfect articulation of Rilke’s sense of beauty and terror.
“It would seem to me that this record reflects the period of time we’ve played together,” Ellis said. “A long time ago, we questioned how long we’d make music together. We determined that we’d do it until the material stopped being fresh.”
This approach has served the Dirty Three well in the past, and it is clear that this album is an articulation of that same philosophy, music in a language that is the band’s own and that continues to feel as fresh as its earlier work.
Joined on this tour by Low’s bassist, Zak Sally, the Dirty Three will work from a touring repertoire of 20 songs, enabling the band to present almost a completely new set each night, another method of keeping the material fresh and new. “I feel like, despite the time that has gone past, we still approach things in the same way we did in the beginning,” Ellis said. Indeed, if this album is any indication, the spirit of the Dirty Three and the spirit of Rilke are both alive and well, as terrible and beautiful as they are.