Dirty Three: Cinder

Zack Adcock

Australian instrumentalists continue to produce swirling aural waves that meld the tools of classical and folk music together as one big, beautiful sound.

Dirty Three


Label: Touch & Go
US Release Date: 2005-10-11
UK Release Date: Available as import
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Tokyo Nights shines a light on the roots of vaporwave with a neon-lit collection of peak '80s dance music.

If Tokyo Nights sounds like a cheesy name for an album, it's only fitting. A collection of Japanese city pop from the daring vintage record collectors over at Cultures of Soul, this is an album coated in Pepto-Bismol pink, the peak of saccharine '80s dance music, a whole world of garish neon from which there is no respite.

Keep reading... Show less

Jamie Lythcott-Haims gives a voice to the internal dialogue—the self-loathing, really—of living a life as a biracial woman who, for most of her life, wasn't quite sure if she was allowed to call herself black.

About 25 pages in, I realized the irony of my hesitation to review Real American, a new memoir about one's place within the spectrum of race by Jamie Lythcott-Haims, a former Standford dean and successful public speaker.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.