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Nobody needs a new Dirty Three album. OK, maybe if your Low and Mogwai records are in the shop or something, but let’s face it: People who go for moody, lush, down-tempo pop buy, like, two CDs a year on average, and because Nick Cave’s latest came out in February, there’s probably not a lot of room in the budget for more arty Aussies. Economics aside, consider this: Despite having a perfectly good guitar on hand, Dirty Three have chosen a freakin’ violin as their lead instrument. And they don’t have a bass at all.
I know, I know, it’s supposed to be like that. It’s just that this self-imposed limited palette has become a bit, well, limited over the course of the past five Dirty Three releases, with the possible exception of 1998’s Ocean Songs. That record took its deep-and-wide title seriously, generating the Melbourne band’s first moments of real excitement since its 1994 debut. Otherwise, the Three have become the go-to guys for noirish evocations of anxiety, with violinist Warren Ellis even doing time touring with Cave in the off-season. You have to wonder how many iterations of the group’s two signature moodsdread-filled and freaked-outare essential to anyone’s lifestyle.
On the other hand, let’s say you’re driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (Stay with me here.) As we all know, the Pennsylvania Turnpike is the worst road in America. It’s two lanes for most of the way, the surface sucks, the fuzz are bastards, and the truckers openly try to kill you. In this environment, or any other where life is made up largely of angstyes, even under Yellow Alert, D.C. countsa record like Dirty Three’s new She Has No Strings Apollo will mirror your mind-set perfectly.
Ellis sets the album’s tone in the first few seconds of Strings’ first track, “Alice Wading.” After vamping a rubato, he abruptly begins plucking a five-note figure full of portent. Meanwhile, guitarist Mick Turner swirls his strings as if he were awaiting permission for takeoff, and drummer Jim White taps out quiet, expectant triplets. Tension is built. You wait for release. So, of course, the group decides to build more tension, with Turner making chugging noises and White cracking his snare like a kid with a cap gun. This goes on for five more minutes and…stops. It’s the kind of track that makes you consider switching to decaf.
The record’s two closing numbers, by contrast, are all release. “She Lifted the Net” stumbles around a sort-of 3/4 beat, Ellis tracing lazy curlicues around the free-jazzy backing with nothing ever quite gelling. The last song, “Rude (And Then Some Slight Return),” follows a similar path until an unexpected guitar hissy fit, which returns later to close things out in a blaze of distortion and pointedly amateur-sounding six-string heroics. It’s a neat trick, but it comes way too late: By this point, anyone who’s still got his hand on the wheelor, for that matter, a laid-in supply of plastic sheeting and Pop-Tartshas become quite bored, if completely on edge.
That’s because three of the album’s remaining four tracks are dirges of the dread-filled variety. The Low-like “She Has No Strings” finds Ellis flying ever-more-menacing orbits over his mates as they plod along below like an unseen danger in the darkening woods. “Long Way to Go With No Punch” (a depressingly accurate title) finds the threat in “Nadia’s Theme,” unfolding a languid piano figure that will lodge behind your eyes like a migraine. And “No Stranger Than That” mills around for four minutes before taking a pizzicato header into a het-up postmodern reel.
The Three really come together only on “Sister Let Them Try and Follow,” which actually swings, man. The double-tracked violin melody sounds like something left on Ken Burns’ cutting-room floor for being just a little too out-there, like “Ashokan Farewell” gone troppo. Despite the martial snares and prickly guitar textures, the track is all lazy and hazy, and it’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder whether minimalist instrumental pop music isn’t the most expressive form of pop music out there. The band heats the groove, allows it to cool with Sonic Youth-esque swirling breaks, and then just kind of lets things drop off with a few legato strokes of Ellis’ bow.
Like Breezewood finally coming into view, “Sister” is a welcome sign that the worst is over. Here’s hoping that, next time out, Dirty Three discover a different way to get there. CP