Published Feb 29, 2012While it's now been close to seven years since Dirty Three gave us any new material, its members kept continually busy with other projects. Violinist Warren Ellis has been collaborating with fellow Australian ex-pat Nick Cave on several film soundtracks as well as being a key member of both his Bad Seeds and Grinderman projects; guitarist Mick Turner is a painter and one half of Tren Brothers with drummer Jim White, who has also been lending his inimitable sharp yet loose drum skills to various indie folk darlings from Cat Power to Will Oldham, amongst others.
Quite understandable then that we haven't heard much from the Dirty Three since 2005's Cinder. "It's good to sometimes to step back from things." says Ellis "I feel like you have to take a breath at some point. It probably would've been good if it had been a bit earlier but other things have been going on and we tried to make a record a couple of times and it just didn't happen, the ideas didn't feel like they were going anywhere different."
Since the mid-'90s the band have been known for their at times chaotic, heavily melancholic and surprisingly emotive sound, successfully combining post-rock with a sound that, if not for the electric guitar, could be a bar band of dusty pioneers from the Australian outback. This time around, Dirty Three bring us an album, their ninth, that rests heavily on improvisation, recalling the live experience more than it does any of their previous studio work. "Certainly with us, you go in and you wanna try something different with each album and usually the thing you've got to kick off is the one you did before and you think 'We definitely don't want to do that.' So we know where it shouldn't go and then we went out and we were playing live shows and kept feeling really great after playing, reminding ourselves that there was something great about this group, that told us to keep going and then we thought we should be doing more of what we're doing live when we go in the studio with the ideas. That gave us a starting point. It allowed more room for us to improvise."
On first listen, the album sounds ramshackle even for Dirty Three but Toward The Low Sun is a work that reveals its charm over time, gradually unfolding with each successive listen. Ellis's strings still drip with heartache and Turner and White's unconventional rhythm section pulse with an upbeat and optimistic drive that pulls the melancholy out of the quagmire, emerging as the bittersweet and reflective style we know to expect from the Australian trio. Having worked on so many vocal projects and playing on compositions of more of a typical song structure meant that it was initially hard to rekindle that more fluid dynamic where the instruments take centre stage. "I think one problem I may have had getting back into it, and I think Jim had too," say Ellis "is finding that space in Dirty Three again where there wasn't that vocal narrative and to try to pick it up again on the instruments. It felt so much easier lately, playing with a singer as the narrative was already there."
The question of narrative is an interesting one for Dirty Three as they always feel like they have something profound to say, a plea oozing out of the instruments, desperate to be heard. "There's no meaning in our music that's there to be misunderstood." Ellis asserts "It's whatever you want it to be. You come along, you listen to it and you make your own story up."
Whatever this open message might be, Dirty Three retain their swagger and powerful dynamics, weaving intricate instrumental ballads that reek of sadness and regret. "With somebody singing, you're connecting with their sadness, or happiness, and you might somehow dump a bit of it on your own situation and wonder if you're not that person in the story but what I always found really attractive about instrumental music is where you're actually engaging in your own emotion, if you let it happen."
Read a review of Dirty Three's Toward The Low Sun here.