As a rule, instrumental rock is lame, particularly instrumental indie rock. The results are usually mathematical-sounding numbers or the wanks of virtuosos trying to show off the scales and modes they learned at Berklee. Dirty Three is different. And in this case, different is good. More affecting than a hundred emo bands and more intricate and interesting than any fusion jazz combo, the Australian trio has endeared itself to the Stinkweeds set by sketching (and stretching) out decidedly un-indie rock songs with just violin, guitar and drums. The group's compositions connect in an inimitable way, using dramatic melodies rather than vocals to convey the important points.
The group's fifth record takes listeners on a heady trip, soaring through with enough variation and ambiance to keep the journey interesting. With only six songs -- the CD clocks in at 45 minutes -- each track seems to go on and on without end or repetition, rife with a peculiar blend of sadness and majesty. The sorrow comes primarily from the long, despondent notes of violinist Warren Ellis, but also from the despondent tempos. Guiding the way with dimly lighted melodies, Ellis' playing is born out of a resigned melancholy. Thanks to the solid framework provided by Mick Turner's guitar arpeggios and drummer Jim White's brushed drum strokes, Ellis has plenty of room to pursue his muse. "I Really Should Have Gone Out Last Night" barely moves initially, guided by White's jazzy underplaying. But at the song's peak, Ellis and Turner duel like somnambulistic swordsmen, beautifully moving in slow motion.
Whatever You Love mostly floats and drifts like that. The interplay among players seems to be telepathic, but the band isn't strictly improvising -- songs are built and refined. The multi-tracked violin cacophony and dissonance that opens "I Offered It Up to the Stars & the Night Sky" builds to a frantic pace, then slows to a series of long, protracted violin notes and finally stops, producing one of the noisier moments of the record. But the song is far from over. Free-form drums stagger in, Ellis joins up again and Turner peels off some faraway slide runs -- doing a complete about-face, resulting in one of the band's quieter tunes. So you go about your business, only to return 10 minutes later to find the same song has reached yet another crescendo of wailing violin, jarring guitar and thrashing drums. Those kinds of transcendental flashes -- building castles from a single grain of sand -- are what make the Dirty Three completely lovable.