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Dirty Three: She Has No Strings Apollo

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REVIEW: Dirty Three: She Has No Strings Apollo
3.13.2003 by Sean

Dirty Three: She Has No Strings Apollo [Touch and Go, 2003]

Three words? Old, remembered sparks.

Eleven records into their career, Dirty Three aren't setting any new fires. In the early days, their music would set things alight: preconceptions went out the window as 1994's Sad and Dangerous blew open, Warren Ellis's blazing violin lurching in and out of Mick Turner's electric guitar noise and Jim White's semiconscious drumming. This was instrumental music that neither eschewed nor worshipped melody, straddling the line where classical music became dangerous. Ocean Songs and Horse Stories brought an intimacy to the trio's compositions - raw, plucked sadness - while 2000's Whatever You Love, You Are saw such sensations made lush, wide-lensed. With each composition - Ellis' sawing bow, Turner's illogical-and-inspired harmonies - another flame was ignited, flickering and strange.

It's a little sad, then, that She Has No Strings Apollo so rarely burns bright. The thick opening strokes of "Alice Wading" set a perfect tone, with Western-tinged pizzicato weaving an evocative theme... but then the piece circles back on itself, adding details but never entering the landscape it has introduced. These are richer, fuller songs than those boasted on the last LP - Mick Turner's ear, particularly, seems attuned to a wider spectrum of imagery - but they are less compelling, less demanding. A painting hangs upon the wall, dripping with indigos, greys, reds and bright whites, but rarely does the scene grow and change, plunging itself into you, you into it. It's lovely, bold background music - like the swell of waves as they crash upon sand - but aspires to little more than that. Even with the volume turned up, the painting remains flat.

That said, there is a bright spot. "No Stranger Than That" is one of the most beautiful, moving things that Dirty Three have ever recorded. Ellis' violin answers itself under a night sky, a gypsy dance melody falling from the stars. Half-way through, the whirling begins - like a page taken from fiddler Felix Lajko's book, the folk reel grows expansive and swift: a wheeling, luscious rush. The drums scatter like sparks over the desert, the guitar a firm partner to the violin's mad dance. It's glorious and glittering and, yes, sad. Nostalgia - from the Greek "nostos" (a return home) and "algos" (pain).

It's hard not to feel the same nostalgia for a time when Dirty Three were terrifyingly immediate, shininghot and vibrant. Though She Has No Strings Apollo is lovely - music to dream and work to - it mostly lacks the passion that so moved the group's earlier work. It's music to enjoy and not to love - these are songs not for listening to, but merely for hearing.

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