Funny how the Dirty Three managed to avoid the jazz tag but got labeled as one of those instrumental post-rock bands instead. Just having a violin in your instrumental three piece doesn’t automatically make you a jazz band of course but it sounds to me, after listening to Sad And Dangerous a few times, that much of this is improvised. In fact it was recorded live at various sessions during 1992-93. Perhaps it’s because they’re Australian and they use guitars that they’re not lumped in with that jazz lot, but as someone who’s listened to a lot of jazz over the past few years, I prefer to approach this from the jazz angle—which means listening to this as the dynamic live interplay between Warren Ellis (bass & violin), Jim White (percussion) and Mick Turner (guitar and bass).
For some reason that I can’t possibly fathom, this LP, their debut, hasn’t been as well reviewed as their later material. It’s possibly not as pop-melodic but there’s still a wealth of interesting stuff going on; ie – like all good jazz this is music that rewards with close listening. Now, as Alan Bumstead, I’m not going to do my usual thing and describe what I hear in great detail because that would get boring quickly. Instead I’m going to work my way through the Dirty Three catalogue by imagining every single song as a short narrative. These songs invite that kind of listening—every song here tells a story. This will be a highly subjective exercise on my part of course, and fraught with the solipsism of my personal associations to violin-infused rock, but if not that, then why even bother writing about music? Instrumental music, especially, can be used as a kind of springboard for something narratively creative…
Kim’s Dirt… is a cover, written originally by Australian rock man, Kim Salmon apparently. It’s over ten minutes, a slow, atmospheric piece that uses a simple five note ascending arpeggio on guitar. Throughout there are faint dripping sounds with high woodblock notes which complement the guitar part, and then winding among the rhythm section is Ellis’s electrified violin, with just a faint touch of distortion which gives it extra texture. He plays long slow sustained notes, which wobble and hover, occasionally soaring and twisting; this description makes this piece resemble some kind of tropical garden. You’ve got that water dripping, the humid guitar notes and the insect-like buzzing of the violin and one can quite easily imagine wandering through some large hothouse admiring the venus flytraps, Xylopia brasiliensis, and the viola sp. Yes, those are real Amazonian rainforest plants. But they suit this exotic sounding music, which, when you think about, is a pretty gutsy move for the opening track on a band’s debut album. And it’s great, very listenable, evocative. If I had to impart a narrative into it, the mood created by the sorrowful violin sounds like someone, a girl by a pool, deciding to break up with her boyfriend, but afraid to hurt him. That’s the feeling you get from this, someone in emotional pain, holding back from something painful they have to do. It’s like the line from a Spiritualized song: “Nothing hurts like the pain of someone so close to you.” The guy? He’s approached her, but he’s realized, and now he’s backing off, confused. Fade out.
Killykundane… starts off ever so briefly with what sounds like a distorted riff playing “Auld Lang Syne,” but the violin soon gets shut out by the cymbals and searching drums. It’s all tentative, like a baby bird taking flight for the first time, flapping up off the ground, but not quite gaining air. The erratic percussion stops, and we get a lone, er…sorrowful (again) violin. We can imagine someone searching for something, a thought perhaps. Ellis keeps us right on the edge of this emotion, never spilling over into anything sentimental, never quite lending his part release either, just holding us there. A few guitar notes, the drummer rolls back in. Everyone’s on the edge of their seats not quite willing to be the one to dive in first. They’re all trying to out-delicate each other, as if they’re each holding a tissue on their nose while playing and the rule is you can’t let it fall. There’s no regular rhythm or melody to speak of—just that ever-searching, probing sound. Violin finally works up something harder, and this gives Drums something to beat about. This is finely nuanced stuff, I tell you, and really quite beautiful—a word I fear I’m going to wring all meaning out of in writing about the Dirty Three. Pip and finish. The story here is a man crafting something very fine and delicate, an artisan of some sort, and he requires complete concentration to perform his task accurately.
Jaguar… now we have erratic drums foraging around for a regular beat, with distorted guitar notes gouging in the rough with the drummer. It’s also very on-the-brink kind of stuff, a little jazzy. The violinist soon stakes his claim but you can appreciate his restraint—too much violin and he’d always be upstaging the other two, only because it’s the loudest, keenest sounding instrument of the three. It gets really fuzzy, an unusual sound, really effective though. I’m struggling to catch a story in this piece, it’s a deliberate effort on the part of Violin to scratch out a persistent niche just above the drummer. Again, no real tune here, but certainly a “piece” that is grounded in a complex set of feelings. Jaguar? I couldn’t quite place it. This is beyond-music though, it’s more than mere music. It’s utterly unique.
Devil In The Hole… is fast, scratchy, very detailed, pointillist, heavily distorted, but restrained, never breaking the skin of the room with anything loud or unpleasant. Guitar and drums keep the rhythm together but only just. I’m getting a very clear picture here, like say… some kind of life form—it’s just been born and its mother has abandoned it, and it’s being attacked. It has to survive. From the moment it was born this thing has to writhe free, wriggle away, stay on the move from predators, and it’s doing a pretty good job of that. This is a record of its first few minutes of life, being chased, avoiding death, while at the same time seeking out food to give it energy to keep going. It gets out of the ground, and now it’s above ground moving more quickly with the imperative—must keep moving. But out here there’s new dangers to face and some of them wear a friendly face, but all of them are in the same boat; avoiding predators, preying on others, trying to survive, needing to rest. Trust me—this description is exactly what this piece of music invokes.
Jim’s Dog… is pure hardboiled detective fiction noir, city music, late at night, shuffling through the dark damp alleys, walking bass, trailing someone up ahead who’s moving stealthily enough but doesn’t know you’re following him (Jim). He enters a building and you enter the building opposite, climb the stairwell and watch a light come on; you see him in the building, through a window; he’s panicky, moving about in the apartment looking for something, getting more panicky, he can’t find what it is he’s looking for. He makes a phone call, but you’ve tapped his line and that’s when he realizes someone’s listening in; that’s when he goes to the window, stares across into the darkness and suddenly it seems he’s looking right at you! Intense! The lights go out, and you can’t see him anymore. Shikes. Now you’re the one who’s being followed, only he’s got a dog, and you can hear the two of them enter the building several floors below. You run out a fire escape and shimmy down a ladder, your heart beating rapidly. Run! Run! He opens a window, you look up, he looks down and for a split second you look right into each other’s eyes. But just as quickly, you’re scuttling through dark shadows, along the side of buildings. You know your way through these streets, you can get away easily enough, but your cover’s been blown.
Shortbreak… lots of flustery white noise, a rabid rhythm, that white hot noise of a needle wavering in static, a sickly pale feeling, a needle sticking out of your arm and some kind of immense confusion. Hyper-distorted blown-fuse chaos. It’s like you want to speak, you want to say, “would someone get that needle out of my arm” except it’s like a bad dream and you can’t get the words out, and now someone’s beating on the lid of your garbage-can head shouting at you, “get out of there” and you want to say “I’m not in here” only you know you are, but you don’t want to be found out. And you’re yelling inside your dream but in a dream no one can hear you scream. Wow, what a cool track this is.
Turk Reprise… military drums at dawn, the whole city hears them, a city-wide wake-up call. An industrial grind starts up somewhere beyond the railway. Machines are being fired up, engines are being stoked. The sound of industry shaking awake. This is the railways for sure, trains, the remnants of yesterday’s engines still rattling through the rails, merging with new vibrations of engines being fired up. Men are going about in the early dawn hours stoking the day. Black locomotive smoke, ash and sparks, the metallic hard world of an engineer. It’s not an easy listen, this one—bit harsh on the ears, but it’s the sheer theatricality of what these guys are doing that makes you sit up and take notice. Messrs Ellis, White and Turner certainly don’t repeat themselves.
You Were A Bum Dream… sound-wise, this seems to reprise the theme of the opening track. High-pitch violin, squealing with heightened emotion. A piano and bass creating that moody tropical garden feel again. Something that happened a few days ago that you don’t want to remember, and as time drifts by, you’ve become better at convincing yourself it never did happen, and eventually you can no longer tell whether it ever happened or not. A relationship you once had with someone that now seems like a story that you made up, so vividly in fact that the memory of your created relationship has taken over the reality and hence become the reality, because what’s remembered could be something that happened or didn’t happen. This is the guy from “Kim’s Dirt” trying to remember if that girl by the pool was ever real, or whether it was his own fantasy; she was some beauty, and he’d always thought that with her he might be truly happy, but he realizes that were she attainable, his dream would die and he’d no longer have her sitting there, forever on the edge of his conscious, which is the best place for her to remain. This is an intensely beautiful recording, especially with the blurred-edge guitar notes at the end. Lovely.
Wow, what an incredible album this is. It offers and suggests so much, a richness of textures and possibilities, and each possibility opening another array of new possibilities, each leading in a thousand different directions until you have a multi-hued rainbow of parallel universes all laid over one another in a super complex space-time paradigm. Music like this is full of pure and rapidly changing emotions that are way too complex for words to pin down. And even though the recording is fixed in place, put out there, it’s not a settled thing by any stretch, but rather a dreamy vista of infinite suggestion. I love this band.