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TBTS Reviews: Dirty Three, Toward the Low Sun

March 11, 2012

As with my recent Archers of Loaf and Jeff Mangum reviews, all my observations of the Dirty Three’s new album, Toward the Low Sun, are colored by a deep and longtime love of the band. Since the mid-1990s, the terrific voice, alternately roiling and beatific, that Warren Ellis wrings from his violin has spoken to me more clearly and forcefully than nearly all other voices in the rock world. 1996’s Horse Stories and 1998’s Ocean Songs are, for me, indispensable, as are a great number of Ellis’ collaborations with Nick Cave after his becoming a full-time Bad Seed more than a decade ago.

In that context, Toward the Low Sun is both a wonderful album and a bittersweet sign that Dirty Three are, on record at least,* substantially different from what they once were. Starting with the latter point and using Horse Stories as a contrast, the new Dirty Three album is more restrained, more cerebral, and seemingly more focused on composition. These signs of maturation are all good things in their own way, but what’s lost is the visceral gut-punch of Horse Stories tracks such as “Sue’s Last Ride” and “I Remember A Time When Once You Used to Love Me.” More than 15 years on, the evocative drama of the younger Dirty Three still astonishes. By comparison, there is nothing on Toward the Low Sun that matches the raw, animalistic charisma and towering magnitude of Horse Stories’ finest moments. Even the most confrontational moments on Toward the Low Sun, such as the clamorous conclusion of “Rising Below,” have a measured, sober, almost thoughtful air about them.

And yet Toward the Low Sun has quickly become my favorite Dirty Three album since Ocean Songs, which itself was far calmer and more studious than its unhinged predecessor. For every blazing thrill that’s been lost, Dirty Three has added ample, though subtler, appealing elements.

Chiefly, Jim White’s drumming on Toward the Low Sun is rhythmically tighter, more multidimensional, and more integral to the strength of Dirty Three’s songs than ever. I’ve always enjoyed White’s expressionistic playing, but on Toward the Low Sun he contributes as much color and shading as ever while achieving a new level of solidity and structural logic. White’s sustained assault on album opener “Furnace Skies” is more than a little reminiscent of Elvin Jones’ incendiary runs in the John Coltrane Quartet fifty years ago. He’s basically punching and kicking everything on his kit all at once, but it all fits—and that’s no small achievement. A few tracks later, White plays the most straightforward rock and roll beat I’ve ever heard from him—and it’s a good thing—on “That Was Was.” Given White’s penchant for charmingly loose, ramshackle playing on earlier albums, these and other rock-solid White moments on Toward the Low Sun are a bracing, pleasant surprise.

Another area in which Toward the Low Sun excels is its instrumental and compositional diversity. Dirty Three continues to stretch beyond its origins as a rigidly defined violin/guitar/drums unit making what essentially sounded like live-in-the-studio records as a trio. The lovely piano on the transcendent “Ashen Snow” is an essential piece of the track’s success, as is the groaning Farfisa in “Furnace Skies” (as an accent to White’s drumming, which is basically the lead instrument in the track). Many songs feature multiple tracks of Ellis’ violin and other strings, often with attractive interplay between simultaneous plucked and bowed violin phrases.

In short, Toward the Low Sun shows that Dirty Three’s records may not be as formidable or explosive as they once were, but the band still has plenty of weapons in the arsenal and can still launch an impressive attack.

*Well-mannered studio recordings or no, this mad, fevered, ridiculously moving 2010 hotel-room performance with Nick Cave shows that the live Dirty Three can still knock you over, even if you think you’ve braced yourself.

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