It’s not just the Dirty Three’s unusual lineup — violin, guitar and drums — that makes the Melbourne, Australia, trio special. The group’s rumbling, kinetic sound bypasses the pure pleasure of surf instrumentals and even the heavier reality of Australia’s fine swamp-rock tradition for something altogether more dynamic. Led by violin player Warren Ellis (a sometime Robert Forster sideman whose breathless rants during live shows add a further dimension), the Dirty Three fold into their burly rhythms and squalls of guitar noise a force rife with pain and possibilities.
Recorded as a demo, Sad & Dangerous was first released in the US in 1994 on vinyl, in a beautiful, hand-screened package that housed a subtle but delicious introduction to the Dirty Three’s atypical sound. The lead track, a spooky cover of “Kim’s Dirt” by former Scientist Kim Salmon, hints at a connection between the Dirty Three and their Australian forebears, a kinship that would later become more overt. The album’s first half has a tense, low-key atmosphere, as Jim White’s sympathetic percussion and equally attuned guitar from ex-Moodist Mick Turner (who also produced the album) flesh out Ellis’ violin leads. The second half heads all over the place: “Devil in the Hole” is light on drama and heavy on decorative twists, “Jim’s Dog” dips into jazzy waters and “Short Break” is a roadrunner-paced jam. “You Were a Bum Dream” forecasts Ellis’ flourishing, descriptive style and ability to set and maintain a tone. While the album reveals many of the group’s effective tricks, it doesn’t have the coherence of the trio’s next release. (The 1995 CD issue, whose initial run featured equally impressive silk-screened artwork, adds three cuts.)
Dirty Three is a much fuller exploration of the group’s rich potential. The lava-like flow of the opening “Indian Love Song” doesn’t relent throughout the disc’s seven tracks, one of which is a more feverish and muscular version of “Kim’s Dirt.” The track puts a spotlight on the group’s love for sonic drama, led by Ellis’ supple playing (it’s not surprising that he’s toured with another drama-loving Australian: Nick Cave). Occasionally, his violin takes on a rootsy, vaguely Celtic tone, as on “Better Go Home Now” and the revealingly poignant “Everything’s Fucked”; a lonesome-sounding accordion on “Odd Couple” further broadens the scope. Without a vocalist, the Dirty Three are able to say more about bruised hearts, drunk minds and late-night tragedies than most bands relying on easy verbal cues.