Dirty Three – Ocean Songs

Calxie #1: Album most likely to ruin a dinner party: Nominee 4 of 4

I haven’t yet seen ‘Waterworld’. Every time I ask someone about about it, up to three negative attributes are highlighted at once: “ridiculous”, “expensive” and “Kevin Costner”. It’s an action movie, apparently, full of mutants, high-speed persuits and cans of food suspiciously labelled “SMEAT”. Still, its plot has much potential as straight-up conceptual drama. The polar ice caps have melted and the planet has flooded. If the script writer had screwed up the action movie idea and wrote it as a Pinteresque study of loneliness in a drowned world, you’d only have to look as far as the letter D in the directory of purveyors of emotional, yet subtle, instrumental music for a soundtrack. ‘Ocean Songs’ reflects that terrible dormant hopelessness better than any other in this scenario.

It’s a desperately subtle album; almost too subtle. After many tries I wrote it off as dull, but in one of those strange U-turn moments after one last play before I considered giving the CD away, I just happened to be in the mood and it clicked. Lucky, eh? The trio consists classically trained violinist Warren Ellis, guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White and all are equally vital. They’ve made more direct, accessible and, some may say, interesting works than ‘Ocean Songs’, but in a way, ‘Ocean Songs’ stands on its own as a breed apart from its siblings – it’s not a better breed, but it’s a different one. Take this LP’s predecessor for instance, the tweely titled ‘Horse Stories’. It’s a dramatic, cinematic, melodically driven record, that sounds as if the band could be playing in a Wild West scene, if stereotypical Westerners of the Wild variety didn’t have black and white emotions, ranging from “Sir, you startin’ somethin’?” to “Hoooo-wheee!”. ‘Ocean Songs’ doesn’t build itself up and tear itself down in gradual peaks and troughs like ‘Horse Stories’. Instead it seethes with an unquenchable melancholy. The pace remains almost exactly the same throughout which can be extremely infuriating and the texture only changes glacially, but, as I say, when you’re in the right mood, it really takes you places and tugs earnestly at your heartstrings. Plus, if you’re going to credit the band for anything, you can say that nothing sounds like the middle of the sea like ‘Ocean Songs’. Jim White’s drums creak like a bough of a ship and roll like waves; Mick Turner’s guitar feels like a wistful skywards gaze while Ellis’ moody violin shuffles and sighs like a lone survivor picking his way through debris on a beach. So, in a nutshell, slow as hell, not ripe for mix-tapes, but atmospheric and beautiful when your brain is feeling receptive enough (and after enough plays maybe), but basically don’t get your hopes up too quickly and you will be rewarded. Good things indeed come to those who wait.

Don’t play it at a dinner party because
A) It’s too slow.
B) It will bum your guests out something dreadful and they’ll start questioning whether anything can truly be said to exist in this joyless ball we call life.
C) If you’re not in an emotional mood (and middle-class dinner parties are about eating garlic bread and swapping recipes,  not nursing Jack Daniels and silently reading poetry), then you won’t get it, and even if you are, you still won’t get it for at least three more plays I’m guessing.
Key track: Backwards Voyager


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