Dirty Three
Ocean Songs
(Touch and Go)

What with all the recent fascination about sinking ships -- Titanic's themes of love on the high seas, kindly souls who drown beautifully, and all that business -- it's worth noting that Dirty Three's fourth album, Ocean Songs, is great background music for a burial at sea. The Australian instrumental trio -- guitarist Mick Turner, violinist Warren Ellis, and drummer Jim White -- play a lovely sort of film music that's cut with a sinister edge. Bridging the gap between the stunning panoramas of Ennio Morricone's soundtracks and the harsh angularity of Nick Cave's Birthday Party work, they're the sort of band that'll write a supremely beautiful lament, then subvert it by titling it "Everything's Fucked." Ocean Songs doesn't come on as jarringly as that, doesn't brutalize the listener the way Dirty Three's earlier albums do. But it still feels like drowning.

When the band's at its best, the improvisational noodling is more than just sad and angry background tones. On the magnificent 1996 record Horse Stories, the group was not just sinister but downright frightening, pounding and slashing at spiky country-tinged songs. Since then, Dirty Three have eased up somewhat, Turner himself releasing the lovely solo album Tren Phantasma last year, and a more recent EP of Turner-White collaborations as the Tren Brothers. So where Horse Stories anxiously bucked and kicked, the water-themed compositions on Ocean Songs simply luxuriate in rolling washes of sound. White spends more time massaging quiet snare rolls than pummeling, and Ellis offers up some of his prettiest violin and viola performances. With Turner setting the mood deep in the background and Gastr del Sol's David Grubbs adding some melancholy piano on a number of tracks, Dirty Three have turned out their most somber but also their most captivating work.

The album only conveys one mood -- mournfulness, and lots of it -- which makes it hard to differentiate the songs from each other; the opening "Sirena" is no more or less dynamic than any of the rest that follow. But when the songs find some breathing room, like the 10-minute "Authentic Celestial Music," or "Deep Waters," which clocks in at 16, the group lightly layers the sounds, wave upon wave of misery crashing against you. Producer Steve Albini smartly keeps his hands off the boards, letting the band work majestic tempests without a hint of melodrama. Dirty Three's brilliance is so subtle that you don't realize until they're finished that they've made misery utterly beautiful, pushing you off a sort of psychic gangplank. The ocean view is so wonderful you hardly notice the drop.

-- Mark Athitakis

Victoria Williams
Musings of a Creek Dipper

Though she took part in last summer's earthy-crunchy Lilith Fair, Victoria Williams is, on the force-of-nature scale, decidedly more Log Lady than tree sprite -- a born storyteller who's been around long enough to know all the yarns there are to spin. And with a voice that hops nimbly from plaintive warbles to comical growls to glass-busting upper-register trills, Williams plays several roles at once: She's both Popeye and Olive Oyl, stroppy old codger and saucer-eyed child, bullfrog and blue jay. The Louisiana-bred songwriter has been charming the corduroys off jaded critics for more than a decade with folky, plain-spoken odes to nature and small-town living that are equal parts Little House on the Prairie, Tom Waits, and Hallmark -- her pastel 1987 debut, Happy Come Home, featured a song about the joys of a favorite pair of walking shoes.

It took an onset of multiple sclerosis to bring Williams' un-self-consciously loopy brilliance to national attention -- 1993's Sweet Relief, an album of covers of her songs by such friends and fans as Soul Asylum, Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, and Matthew Sweet, was an effort to raise money for the uninsured musician. The success of Sweet Relief not only allowed Williams to acquire health coverage and a recording budget for 1995's Loose, but also brought her singular songcraft to a legion of new fans -- among them Frank Sinatra, who ponied up a sizable check for the singer's relief fund.

"A cow told me, 'I think it's gonna rain,' " Williams burbles on "Periwinkle Sky," which opens her new Musings of a Creek Dipper. Pillowed on a lush, attenuated piano arrangement and heightened by majestic cymbals and horns, the characteristically goofy lyric takes on something resembling mystical resonance. Musings, much like Williams' three previous albums, functions as a primer in the art of slowing down, fitting for an artist who, due to her ongoing illness, often has no choice. The grace of Williams' songwriting has always been in her celebration of the simple life, the mundane moments that seem inconsequential in a world where time is bought, sold, maximized, and managed into the smallest possible increments. Williams' songs sketch a homey alternative -- one in which trees are revered, horses and bunnies conspire in the cornfields, and God is our friend. But it's the inventive arrangements that keep her irrepressibly up-with-nature lyrics on the right side of sugar shock.

Call it Ludditecore. Williams now lives near Joshua Tree with husband Mark Olsen, formerly of the Jayhawks; she has no need for the alienation, oppression, and frustration that have long proved the most viable topics on music's big board of lyrical complaint. However, Musings of a Creek Dipper does muster up a hard-line stance on technological encroachment with "Train Song (Demise of the Caboose)." Even your grandfather is probably too busy upgrading his modem to pine for the days when trains had cabooses, but it's a testament to Williams' playfulness that the backward-looking song is the most instrumentally current, with a drum loop providing a lazy hip-hop backdrop for synth flourishes courtesy of Wendy & Lisa (of Prince fame).

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