Wednesday, February 29, 2012

review- dirty three- 'toward the low sun'

Over the last three and a half years the announcement of every new Nick Cave/Warren Ellis project (i.e. Grinderman albums, film soundtracks, etc.) always hit me as good news tempered with a tiny shred of disappointment- this meant more time that Ellis would be away from his Melbourne-based minimalist trio with drummer Jim White and guitarist Mick Turner, the Dirty Three. When the announcement that Grinderman would be no more came late last year it, conversely, gave a glimmer of hope that there might be another Dirty Three album on the horizon, as well as (hopefully, it remains to be seen) a tour. Sure enough, the announcement came in December that a new Dirty Three album would see release in February and now here 'Toward the Low Sun,' the band's first release in six years, is.

The next question is whether the album would be good enough to live up to the long shadow that's cast by the band's sizable back catalogue, which includes a handful of albums that achieve a level of graceful, loose beauty that most bands dare not dream of. 2003's 'She Has No Strings Apollo' has a few moments where they achieve this, as does 2005's 'Cinder' (the band's first attempt at incorporating vocal tracks and condensed song lengths), but neither lives up to the mastery of 1998's 'Ocean Songs,' 2000's 'Whatever You Love, You Are,' 1995's self-titled debut or 1996's raucous 'Horse Stories.' My own hopes were that the time between this release and their last would make for a refreshed sound, which turns out to be the case. They've taken the more compact song lengths of 'Cinder' and injected them with a fresh approach- many of the tracks eschew the band's standard template with some breathtaking results.

The lead-off track 'Furnace Skies' is gritty and chaotic, filled with scuzzy guitar and violin skronk with White laying the foundation with his trademark driving, arrhythmic and manic drum rolls. There is even evidence of several overdubs, which is something the band has always used very sparingly- they usually just stick to the sound of the three of them in a room. At first the track is incredibly jarring, but begins to act as a bit of a cleansing of the palate- it seems to force you to leave all of your expectations at the door because a lot of the rules have changed. The second track is built on a tender piano figure hovering over a stormy sea of drums and guitar. This beginning couplet almost serves as a warm-up for the band and the listener which gives the third track, the western-sounding 'Moon on the Land,' the feel of a graceful and calm lift-off. Built on nylon stringed acoustic chords speaking with a few plucked electric guitar notes as well as Ellis' dueling violins, it's the type of unique loveliness that one has come to expect of the Dirty Three. It's also cohesive and compact, getting its message across in under five minutes without feeling rushed. 'Rain Song' builds upon this in similar suit, giving way to a more controlled semblance of the opening track on 'That Was Was' leading into the excellent 'Rising Below.' In place of longer song lengths the band seems to have arranged the songs into couples which proves to be incredibly effective. 'The Pier' signals the beginning of a three track album wind-down that contains the jewel of the album which is completely unlike anything else the band has ever attempted- the penultimate track 'Ashen Snow.' Guitar and violin are traded in for a piano and mellotron combination that ebbs and flows through its dynamic overlapped patterns building towards an abrupt ending. It's nothing short of breathtaking and gorgeous. The raw production and the loose, unforced approach is what causes the song to bloom with a raw emotion that one doesn't hear in too many recordings these days. This is why Neil Young records the way he does and why the Dirty Three have always done well by his example. The feel is bravely off-the-cuff and genuine. Rather than close with this track they opt to send you on your way with the lullabye-esque 'You Greet Her Ghost,' which returns to their standard arrangement- just the three of them wringing soft beauty from their respective instruments in call-and-response movements.

In terms of their back catalogue I'd place 'Toward the Low Sun' up with 'Whatever You Love, You Are,' which is my second favourite of theirs behind 'Ocean Songs.' It has a compactness coupled with a diversity of voice and mood that makes it a very rewarding listen. 'Ocean Songs' is an extended exercise in complete immersion which will never be bested in their career- it's their 'Disintegration' or 'Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space'- a gem from the CD-era where few artists were capable of meeting the challenge of sustaining a cohesive and engaging listening experience across a 60+ minute stretch. 'Ashen Snow' is already set aside for my year-end favourite tracks of the year list. Oh, by the way, you can go listen to the whole thing here.

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