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CD Review: Dirty Three – Cinder

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It’s been over two-and-a-half years since the last Dirty Three album, but the Melbourne trio clearly hasn’t been taking it easy. Cinder, the band’s latest release on Touch & Go Records, is both its most restrained and expansive album in a history that spans more than a decade.

Dirty Three formed in Melbourne, Australia in 1992 with guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White — both veterans of the Aussie rock scene — along with charismatic violinist Warren Ellis. Their amazing early recordings culminated with 1996’s Horse Stories that features soaring, distorted violin melodies and epic songs that ebb and flow in crashing, successive frenzies.

Cinder, as the name implies, is a different animal altogether. The songs are shorter — 19 of them packed onto one CD — and are infused with an elegiac beauty only hinted at on some of the band’s less-subdued earlier work. In addition to the violin and viola, Ellis adds piano, mandolin and Irish bazouki to the mix and the results are spectacular.

The album opens with the captivating “Ever Since,” a song of understated grandeur with a repetitive melody of guitar and plucked strings that occasionally gives way to swells of bowed violin. “She Passed Through,” which sounds like it could almost be a Tortoise song at the beginning, has Mick Turner on organ and bass (another rarity for the band).

The addition of new instruments and the band’s decision to explore the possibilities of studio recording with Casey Rice rather than simply lay down the tracks live add new layers of complexity to their sound. Cinder is definitely a step away from the violin-god virtuosity of earlier releases, but the album is no less impressive. Particularly interesting is the subtle interplay between Turner’s restrained guitar work and Ellis’ bazouki, which is featured on many of the songs.

One of the album’s highlights is “Doris,” which runs counter to the melancholy and contemplative mood of Cinder. As if proving that you can’t get the ashes without a fire, Jim White pounds out a driving rhythm that forms the backbone for an upbeat guitar line, distorted mandolin and bagpipes, added by Mark Saul. Another highlight is the frenetic rendition of “The Zither Player,” originally by the Hungarian/Gypsy violin virtuoso Felix Lajko. What on an earlier Dirty Three release would simply have been a vehicle for Ellis’ violin pyrotechnics becomes more nuanced with guitar and mandolin parts gradually giving way to Ellis’ sawing violin.

The fact that Dirty Three uses instrumentation to create tension and drama where before the band relied primarily on pacing and volume is testament to the member’s maturation as a band. Another sign that Dirty Three is broadening its horizons is the fact that Cinder features two songs with vocals — another first. The first is a fantastic song called “Great Waves” with lyrics and vocals by Chan Marshall of Cat Power. The other is “Feral” which – true to its title – features no words, but rather the “vocalizations” of Sally Timms of Mekons fame.

While there are momentary sparks of brilliance, Cinder is predominantly spare and smoldering, beautiful and mournful. The fact that Dirty Three created such a fresh and adventurous album bodes well for its future. Cinder isn’t, after all, about burning out – the flame has only become more pure and more refined.

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