Pros' pros who've been sidemen to indie icons, the members of Dirty Three are at their best working together.
Simply put, Dirty Three are pros’ pros. That’s why violinist Warren Ellis, guitarist Mick Turner, and drummer Jim White have been sidemen to the likes of Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Cat Power, and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, helping those iconic artists shape their musical identities and legacies. Yet whether it’s the result of some chemical reaction between their violin, guitar, and drums, or just an uncanny sum-greater-than-parts rapport, they always seem to save their best for when they work together as Dirty Three. If anything, the intuitive interplay between Ellis, Turner, and White might make you think of them as a jazz combo, except for the fact that this trio is an all-out rock band in sound and in sensibility.
Seven years since their last outing, Cinder, and more than a decade after their career pinnacle, 2001’s Whatever You Love, You Are, Dirty Three are still pushing their distinctive aesthetic forward on Toward the Low Sun, re-routing a wide array of traditional idioms from bluesy Americana, eastern European gypsy strains, and Irish folk music through an unapologetically punk perspective. Like most of the Dirty Three albums that came before it, Toward the Low Sun is what it is thanks to the give-and-take between the players and the ebb-and-flow from movement to movement, track to track. Certainly, there are no worries that Dirty Three have lost a step even after the long hiatus, because what they do couldn’t be anything but the product of second nature for ‘em. It’s appropriate, then, that Toward the Low Sun begins in media res with the raucous “Furnace Skies”, which has the effect of a clearing of the decks to start the new album. Weaving Turner’s rumbling electric guitar lines with Ellis’ punch-drunk fiddling, Toward the Low Sun comes out of the blocks with a reminder of Dirty Three’s visceral powers, as if to emphasize that time hasn’t mellowed them out.
It’s not just Dirty Three’s intensity that rings through loud and clear on “Furnace Skies”, but also how their mind-melding teamwork never skips a beat. Indeed, what really conveys the threesome’s skills as a cohesive unit is how they make soundscapes as intricate as theirs are seem so easy and natural. You can hear their uncommon camaraderie the best on the record’s more subtle numbers, especially on the meditative “Ashen Snow”, as each component – the tapped drums, the breezy flute, swaying violin patterns, the simple piano refrain – develops itself organically while bringing out the most from the other parts. “Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone”, with its piano chords buoying the mix, has a contemplative quality that’s still piercing and focused, while gently gorgeous “Moon on the Land” engrosses you as you wait for it to unfold patiently, as White’s brushed drums and Turner’s acoustic strumming nudge the composition on its way.
Even as the ins-and-outs of how all the elements come together in a particular moment or song will hold your attention rapt then and there, the finer details always serve the bigger picture for Dirty Three, as these simmering pieces help create context for the album as a whole. In the larger scheme of things on Toward the Low Sun, the build-ups of these more deliberate numbers not only set up, but accentuate the instances when Dirty Three work themselves into a lather, like when “Moon on the Land” segues into the slow-but-steady dramatics of “Rising Below”: As White guides “Rising Below” into a state of controlled chaos by mixing and matching crisp, march-time snare hits with the textural depth of what sounds like a tympani, the track billows and blooms as Ellis’ violin and Turner’s guitar keep upping the stakes and drawing the other out in response. Even more compelling is how the violin heroics on “That Was Was” shatter the placid surfaces that come before it on “Rain Song”, as Ellis launches into an extended feedback drenched solo that reimagines his fiddle as if it were an axe wielded by J Mascis or Doug Martsch.
Be it the ramped-up action of Dirty Three’s wildest workouts or the cool-off come-downs that give their music a sense of closure and completeness, everything has a purpose and place on Toward the Low Sun. Quite fittingly, the coda “You Greet Her Ghost” combines all the dimensions of Dirty Three’s approach, as it flickers bright and dim to a rolling boil of beats and spasms of electrified violin and guitar to close out the album. It’s just one of many examples of how Ellis, Turner, and White go with the flow and run with their instincts to make what they do look easier than it really is.