Dirty Three: Cinder

[12 October 2005]

By Zack Adcock

Dirty Three is eerie and always has been. Cinder is no different, in that way. There is mesmerizing melancholia here. It’s not music for everyone, but damned if it isn’t gorgeous. The band melds the modern and the classical, using tools of both high-brow and low-brow tradition (violin, viola, Irish bouzouki, piano, mandolin, guitars, bass, organ, drums) to build huge instrumental songs that make most post-rock whimper. Dirty Three makes waves, swirls of sound. Dirty Three collapses the separation of these classic and folk traditions while working within them. Dirty Three is the epitome of music evoking landscapes, desolation, unchartered territory, and ground less trodden. It is music both peaceful and haunting.

These songs are fluid. Though they stop and start, there is no question of their cohesion. Dirty Three is known for long-winded compositions and has never put out a record with more than 10 tracks (that’s not to say any of those albums are lacking, or that each of those tracks isn’t eight-plus minutes long, however). With Cinder, it’s difficult to explain a constraint of any kind, a paring down. The album has 19 tracks and, of those, few break the four minute mark. It feels foolish to say that the result is less instrumental wandering, for instrumental wandering is most of what defines Dirty Three. But there is, needless to say, less long-windedness in a technical, minutes-per-song ratio.

The appropriately titled “Flutter” is perhaps the song most akin to Dirty Three’s past brand of songwriting, and its almost seven-minute drone-fest does seem long-winded and unnecessary in this context (to this writer, it never has before). Again, not to discount the band’s past efforts, but perhaps a little trimming down is what’s been needed all along. The effect is not any less grand or elegant, having 10 songs or 20, but there’s something to this constraint, about having more tracks, more variety, that makes Cinder feel as if it’s a record developed in movements, perfectly related yet developing standalone pieces beautiful in context as well as on their own.

Overlook, for a moment, that Dirty Three is one of those bands who has been accused of making the same album over and over. In minimalism lies restraint and in restraint lies fewer options. Dirty Three has made good with these options, exploring them and expanding upon them. Perhaps this is why I grant them pardon for this oft claim of repetition. The drone, the repetition from song to song, is perhaps what is most electrifying about Dirty Three, and so what’s the difference loving it from album to album? The trio does, however, set this piece aside from others, in many ways, as they have more subtly done with past releases. Along with the shorter songs comes a manner of exploration, both within and outside their previous confines.

Of note is “Doris”, which features bagpipes and is truly a Dirty Three composition at its heart, despite the fact that distorted electric guitars are much higher in the mix than normal. Droning and huge, the song is perhaps bigger-sounding than most things Dirty Three has done before, and starts off a bit louder (it’s almost startling as it chimes in on the record after the first five songs, all quiet and subtle).

Also of note is the first-time addition of vocals to Dirty Three’s repertoire. Does this turn to singing-songs work? Is it good? Yes and yes. Is it necessary? Probably not, but Chan Marshall’s sad warble is perfectly suited to Dirty Three’s brand of instrumental melancholia. Somehow, the vocals offset Dirty Three’s musical persona while still forcing us to beg for more. It’s an inexplicable paradox, really. Dirty Three is inexplicable in general, though, it seems.

(It should be noted that the presence of Sally Timms to the track “Feral” is minimal. While Chan Marshall composes a track and sings lead vocals, Timms’s contribution is more aesthetic, her ethereal humming layered deep in the mix, another instrument as opposed to a voice that literally speaks to us.)

Arguably the collection’s best piece, however, is “Too Soon, Too Late”, which 30 years ago would have made for the perfect spaghetti western theme song, dramatic and haunting and adapting subtle tones of the “Wild West.” Morricone inevitably haunts this work. Desolate and with that aforementioned sense of dreamscape, the track quietly stands out as one of the most realized of the album’s offerings, if not the band’s entire career.

It would be a lie to say some of Cinder doesn’t seem ramshackle. You can tell the difference between a song carefully arranged and one in which the band’s three members appear to be improvising in the studio. One might argue that, because of this, Cinder could be a 50-minute album instead of a 70-minute one, and to more profound effect. This, however, fails to appreciate the improvisational nature of some of these instruments. If Dirty Three wants to make masterpieces, some of the improv has to go. As it stands, the truly improvisational aspects of Dirty Three show their appreciation not only for the classical nature of their instruments but also for the folk variations of them. The violin is classically beautiful, but in the scope of bluegrass is brash and unpredictable. Maestro Warren Ellis knows these different roles and adapts their various aspects across minor keys and washes of sound. Dirty Three, it seems, is better this way. It shows daring and a dedication to the modern. It preserves the very foundations on which this band has built itself.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/dirtythree-cinder/