★★★★☆ There are days when I’m convinced that Dirty Three make the most beautiful music in the world, and after a seven-year recording hiatus, it has returned with Toward the Low Sun, the band’s best album since 1998’s classic Ocean Songs.
For almost 20 years now the band’s utterly unique music has stretched to the stars and back, especially considering its (relatively) limited musical palette of guitar, drums and violin.
For those not familiar, Dirty Three makes songs that feel like rivers, streaming jazz into American folk into gypsy music. They once named a song “Authentic Celestial Music,” and this feels like it. Most songs on Toward the Low Sun sound like first or second takes, and improvised ones at that, flowing between ideas at whim.
Opener “Furnace Skies” shows this tact: sounding like two different songs colliding at high velocity, a flailing, screamingly-distorted violin loop sits behind drums that skitter and crash all over the place, while guitar and violin make tiny stabs in half-time. Masterful players as they are, they pull it off.
Central to their music has always been the slow burn, the song that starts out quiet and grows with intensity until every bit of the track screams and sings in its crescendo. While Low Sun contains no 16-minute epics like Ocean Song’s “Deep Waters,” it still fits worlds into four or five minutes. “The Pier” and “Rising Below” build insistently, finding beauty within the walls of sound they produce.
Even more amazingly, this intensity carries over to the quieter songs on the album. Drummer Jim White beautifully uses brush strokes to underpin “Ashen Snow” and its quiet mix of piano and acoustic guitar. But as layers of violin slowly fall in, they prove just as engaging as the rocking-out on “That Was Was.”
But most of all, this is music that feels raw and messy. Little ever sounds planned. Improvisation, or at least what sounds like it, is the norm, not the exception. In recent interviews, violinist Warren Ellis, who has spent most of Dirty Three’s hiatus playing with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, has said that, as a group they had to unlearn how to play as a band, tightly. Rather, with this album they tried to go back to their roots in freeform, when they played with cues from each other, as opposed to a determined song structure.
Arguably, Dirty Three’s members are best known for the people they’ve worked with outside of their main band: Ellis with Nick Cave, White and guitarist Mick Turner with PJ Harvey and Cat Power. But together, they make a racket that sounds like literally no one else. They make music that transcends genre itself. Their sound is perhaps represented best by the paintings that Turner makes for each album cover: a horse galloping over a cityscape for Horse Stories; Ocean Songs and its sleeping mermaid; the falling stars, distant and birdlike, of Whatever You Love, You Are. Toward the Low Sun’s is of a man slaying a dragon. Take from that what you will, but make no mistake: This is an album you need to listen to.