Dirty Three-Sad and Dangerous
January 28, 2012
Sad and Dangerous(Poon Village 1995)
The title of the Dirty Three’s debut album is an apt declaration of what was accomplished here. There is something elegant and anguished at work here being performed by a trio who was simultaneously masterful and rough around the edges. They were a bit of a paradox at the outset before they sanded away some of the jagged edges into a more streamlined and contoured unit. I do love all of the albums that followed, but Sad and Dangerous is forceful, direct and embraces its imperfections and outbursts where subsequent releases just aimed for a musical approximation of loneliness, regret and despair. Worthwhile pursuits to be sure, but this one was full of piss and vinegar too and it’s essence is a prickly and difficult beast.
Culled from a demo cassette recorded in 1992-1993, Sad and Dangerous captures the brilliant beginnings of a trio exploring the parameters of what was possible in an instrumental rock band with violinist Warren Ellis as its centerpiece underpinned by an understated, but at times ferocious combo of guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Mick White. Their occasional swan dives into dissonance aren’t surprising since Turner and White previously played in the abrasive punk band Venom P. Stinger in the 80s. Other times, White and Turner sound like a stumbling drunk Grant Green jazz session only to rein themselves into a more mellow throb and strum that wouldn’t sound out of place on some forgotten 70s pastoral psych jam. They are the engine that drives this locomotive down its wayward and winding road and really fill in the background with some gorgeous and visceral melodies and brash and brutal stabs of noise that set a grand stage for Warren Ellis to glorify and mangle all that is good and great about the violin.
If Turner and White were responsible for painting the background of the canvas, Warren Ellis’s bold and vivid brushstrokes were splattered all over the foreground as he rightfully claimed the spotlight on both their recorded work and revelatory live performances. I remember seeing them on their first American tour and still remember the magical feeling during the opening strains of “Kim’s Dirt” as I realized within a few minutes that this was going to be one of those performances that forcefully suck you into the immediacy of the moment and are struck by the epiphany that you are witnessing greatness as it occurs. Yeah, Ellis’ drunken banter and rambunctious stage presence got everyone’s attention pretty quickly, but there was something truly romantic and vast about the melodies that emanated from his instrument. It swallowed you whole and conjured memories both ecstatic and romantic as well as troubled and tragic as each swell of sound gathered you in the palm of its hand like an impressionable child. It was a truly moving experience that was full of humor, drama, fuck-ups and true suspense which are incredibly rare qualities in a live or recorded event. Now, it was a bit disappointing when I traveled to see them a second and third time only to see Ellis use the same stories and schtick, but I refused to let it debase the purity of the first time I saw them perform.
Sad and Dangerous fittingly begins with the best moment of the career “Kim’s Dirt”, which is ironically not even written by the band, but by Kim Salmon of the equally brilliant Australian band, the Scientists. It encapsulates everything that is special about the band into a single ten-minute epic. The voyage begins with a deceptively simple and minimal guitar riff that gracefully putters along until Ellis breaks out the waterworks and delivers his best performance as he literally wrings every ounce of emotion out of each pull of the bow. It slowly builds and builds upon this pattern until they ever so gradually pick up the pace to hypnotic trot that continuously threatens to break into a sprint, but never does so in favor of a precarious control over a melody that threatens to topple over at any moment. “Devil in the Hole” is notable because it delves into chaos and clatter as an accompaniment and reveals a side of the band that should’ve been explored again, but rarely ever was. “You Were a Bum Dream” could almost be from the heyday of the 4ad or ECM labels due to its ethereal and ghostly ambiance and kind of foreshadows Ellis’ later career scoring such films as The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James. It is fitting that Sad and Dangerous’ closer is as abstract and difficult as its opening is warm and inviting as “Turk” buries its beauty under a swath of drones and feedback as if the band was not content with attaining beauty, but was interested in its seedy underbelly. I miss this side of the Dirty Three and wish they’d revel in the tatters and shards again for a little while. However, Sad and Dangerous is a reminder of when they were unsure of which way was up and the music was all the more powerful for it.
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