February 27, 2003

The Strings and the Fury

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She Has No Strings Apollo is the much-anticipated follow-up to this Aussie trio’s 2000 masterpiece, Whatever You Love, You Are. The interim hasn’t been free of the Three, however, as all three members kept busy with solo projects and collaborations with the likes of Smog, Cat Power, and Nick Cave. After the break, it’s nice to hear guitarist Mick Turner back with his mates, even though his recent solo album, Moth, was a stunning exercise in six-string hypnotics. Likewise, although Warren Ellis’s elegant violin contributions to Nick Cave’s Nocturama quenched a bit of my dirty thirst, nothing is quite like hearing the man go crazy with his bow (Nick Cave probably scares his band into submission with one of those I’ve-killed-a-man glances of his).

Apollo has been long-coming for both fans and the band. The trio sat down to write new songs at the beginning of 2001, but weren’t satisfied with the results, feeling they didn’t “sound like a step in any direction form the previous record” (Ellis). And so, they tossed those songs out and, after some time apart, started from scratch. The seven songs that comprise She Has No Strings Apollo were recorded in a mere three days, full of reinvigorated passion and a restless need for expression.

The album is well worth the wait. All three musicians are so inhumanly talented with their respective instruments that anything they create is worth hearing. I’d imagine that even a tape of Warren Ellis eating cereal would sound somehow like a fractured and darkly beautiful melody.

While these seven songs offer the raw, moody, and melancholic splendor one has come to expect from the Three, there is certainly something new about Apollo. Ellis adds gentle piano flourishes to songs like “Long Way to Go With No Punch,” on which the twinkling arpeggios and Jim White’s low drum punctuations bookend the guitar and violin interplay. Turner also branches out, providing some deeper drones on bass and organ, while keeping his guitar tone as distinct and provocative as ever. The guitarist shines on “Rude (and then some slight return),” when the lilting tune abruptly gives way to a distortion-heavy rock-out, before returning to the contrasting softness of Ellis’s wafting melody and White’s reserved embellishment. The song, and the entire album, utilizes the ebb and flow of tension and release, the dynamics of uncontrollable emotions. Dirty Three make the music of bitter sweetness, of cathartic sadness, of beautiful and enlightening darkness. They turn contrast into power.

These songs also contain some of the most beat-oriented drumming I’ve heard from White, who usually sticks to loose, improvisational, and always deliberate hitting of things. Even the energy sounds fresh, especially when songs like “No Stranger Than That” erupt in breathtaking climaxes of stirring instrumental eloquence.

While the underground war between instrumental and vocal music rages on, The Dirty Three are champions of the notion that some emotions are beyond words. Voltaire said that “language is difficult to put into words,” and this depth of melancholia and natural elegance is even harder. The solution is found in six Australian hands, and the profound music they make.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas