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Not a lot of bands have gone broke underestimating the listening public, but plenty stay broke by aiming too high. In between, there's a gray area where certain groups are able to maintain a mildly profitable fan base and reap critical acclaim.
The Dirty Three wallows in the gray. The Melbourne, Australia trio -- guitar, drums and violin -- has always dealt in minimalist song structures and sounds. Listeners are, in essence, the fourth member of the group, adding their own experiences and mental images to the songs, empowering Dirty Three to be that much bolder in its experimentation.
An aching study in tension, Dirty Three's latest release, Ocean Songs, is a forlorn dirge engineered and produced by former grunge guru Steve Albini (Nirvana, Bush), and it bears his signature: the sound and feel of a band playing together in the same room. That organic approach is a departure from the refined, layered sound on previous Dirty Three releases. Regardless, guitarist Mick Turner continues to deal in subtle shades of blue as he negotiates Warren Ellis's meandering violin and the spare brush strokes of drummer Jim White.
It's Ellis who calls from Australia, and with a 14-hour time difference between us, he is just waking up, talking as if he's still lost in some stubborn dream. Given that his band has few of the hallmarks sought by today's American music buyer -- you know, vocals, catchy hooks, good looks -- I ask him if he's been surprised by the chilly reception they've received by the U.S. mainstream. Of course, he is well aware that Dirty Three has always been a favorite among American critics (their last album, Horse Stories, made Rolling Stone's ten-best list of 1996), but the news of more recent raves has traveled slowly. When it's relayed to him that mainstream magazines such as Entertainment Weekly have taken a shine to Ocean Songs, he's a little astonished.
"I wasn't really sure if people were going to get what we were trying to do with the record," he says. "Because it was so different to a lot of the aspects of the other records. I am pretty surprised. I've always been surprised that people like our stuff."
The fourth album of Dirty Three's quietly brilliant five-year career, Ocean Songs is hardly some feel-good sea-shanty song cycle. Rather, it's a dark meditation on a cruel, unforgiving sea. That concept and its execution did not sit well with Big Cat, the band's former label in Europe. The band wouldn't back down and was subsequently dropped. "They thought it was too inaccessible," says Ellis. "It just wasn't the record they thought we were going to make.... We've only ever made records for ourselves -- made music we like."
Dirty Three's integrity isn't based on commercial defiance. The group is well aware that it falls squarely on the "art" side of the "art versus commerce" debate, so they rarely take sales potential into account -- at least in public. Dirty Three possesses a rare combination of naivete and arrogance, which, in the eyes of its fans, translates into virtue. "It's interesting, really, because there's not one word except for the titles of [the songs], and they are either quite specific or quite ambiguous," Ellis says. "But it's really up to people to put their own story to it, or to take what they want from it. I think maybe it has to do with that freedom for people to be reflective, not to be berated by an attitude or an idea."
Rest assured Dirty Three devotees are passionate -- even obsessive -- about that notion. Musician/author Nick Cave once drove 600 miles to catch a Dirty Three show. And even if Ocean Songs is a bit of a downer, fanatics understand the band's well-documented compulsion to take chances.
Ellis has his own theory as to why certain people get so attached to Dirty Three records: "Quite often, our records seem to have a relevance to what's going on with them when it comes out. A lot of people have said that, in particular, about Horse Stories. That was quite a turbulent record, so maybe people were having a bit of a hard year when that one came out.
"I think maybe it has something to do with where [the music] comes from. I think there's an honesty there that people connect with."
Dirty Three performs Wednesday, June 24, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Tickets are $7. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. For info, call 862-7530.
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