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
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).
There's no question that Williams is an acquired taste -- at one point she squawks, "Chores, chores, chores!" on the meandering "Grandpa in the Cornpatch." But any one of her songs left in the hands of a less abrasive vocalist -- her Lilith friend Jewel, let's say -- would come off as a soggy Sister Nature act. Musings of a Creek Dipper is Williams at her most impractically alluring -- like nature itself, she pisses you off sometimes, but she's rewardingly impossible to ignore.
Victoria Williams & the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers play Wednesday, April 8, at 8 p.m. at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (at Polk). Chris Stills opens. Tickets are $17; call 885-5075.
-- Andi Zeisler
Kenny Barron and Charlie Haden
Night and the City
A professional since he was 15, when he started playing first rhythm-and-blues and then what has become known as hard bop, the 54-year-old jazz pianist Kenny Barron has been taken for granted for years: The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz describes him as "a reliable mainstream pianist." Barron shouldn't be damned with such faint praise. He's reliable, but, recently, he has turned into one of the most appealingly lyrical pianists. He demonstrates his professionalism, as well as his taste and personality, in his carefully shaped and elegantly varied ballads and in the swaying waltzes on Night and the City.
He's joined on this live recording, made in Manhattan's Iridium, by the celebrated bassist Charlie Haden, who came by his lyricism through a different path. Although Haden became recognized through his work in the early '60s with Ornette Coleman, the bassist's first performances were with his family's country band. Haden was the anchor of the Coleman quartet, his deep tone and melodic acuity offering a counterweight to Coleman's astringent bluesiness. Coleman acknowledged his down-home feel with "Ramblin'," a tune for Haden that might be called avant-country. Haden has a booming, warm tone, and he eschews the guitarlike runs of contemporary bassists. His drama is of a different kind: Using his tense, large tone, and placing notes exquisitely, Haden can make a walk up a chromatic scale seem like a major event.
In middle age, both Barron and Haden have become gentler, and more lyrical, musicians, unashamedly interested in melody and more likely to substitute warmth for fire. Haden has been recording new versions of '30s standards while acknowledging -- to the shock of some of the fans of his avant-garde playing -- his debt to pop singers such as Jo Stafford. Barron has been taking a similar path. Night and the City is a masterful collaboration. They play well-known ballads ("You Don't Know What Love Is") and a couple of originals, including Haden's "Waltz for Ruth." Barron's unaccompanied first chorus to "You Don't Know What Love Is" has bravura scale passages of the kind we associate with Art Tatum. But this disc isn't about fireworks: Barron relaxes into the end of the chorus and yields to Haden, whose deep tone, precise placement of sustained notes, and warmly lyrical sense make the melody glow.
They often sound serenely innocent. "For Heaven's Sake," with its unchallenging chord sequences, is introduced nonchalantly by Barron, who interjects several Tatum-esque runs into a theme statement that soon settles into a sweetly bouncing groove. For all his credentials with the avant-garde, Haden plays it straight here. He doesn't push the rhythm: Some fans might complain that this disc doesn't swing enough. His note choices are basic, if not completely predictable, and with puckish good humor he repeatedly imitates the rhythm of the written melody. Barron's long solo gradually increases in intensity. The climactic two choruses include long runs across the bar lines, phrases that end in suave trills. Then he pulls back and gently introduces Haden. With their clear and distinct ideas, Haden's solos create their own world: He seems to see his solos virtually as separate statements. He tends first to restate the melody, as if redefining his material and signaling a new start at the same time. Then with as little flash and thunder as possible, he creates his own lovely, perfectly shaped melodies. They end with an extended diminuendo that only a couple of consummately skilled professionals could make so interesting and natural.
Night and the City is a real collaboration. Barron begins "Body and Soul" with quiet drama, alternating thickly textured chords and finely tuned runs, but then turns the stage over to Haden. In the last chorus, Barron strums the chords like a guitarist, but punctuates the romance with Monk-like repeated notes in the right hand and then a staccato countermelody as if to suggest the bittersweet complications of the standard and of love. I can't think of a recent performance that sounds fresher, or deeper, than this 10-minute rediscovery and reinvention of an often-played standard. It's worth getting Night and the City just to see what still can be done with "Body and Soul."
The Kenny Barron and Charlie Haden Duo perform Wednesday through Sunday, April 8-12, at several different times at Yoshi's, 510 W. Embarcadero (at Washington), Oakland. Tickets are $5-20; call (510) 238-9200.
-- Michael Ullman