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Nashville Scene Speechless

Three new, largely instrumental albums explore unusual sounds, offer heartfelt musical expression

By Michael McCall

APRIL 17, 2000:  Carlos Santana has recently seized headlines with a musical mantra he's been repeating for at least two decades With a guitar, a musician can choose either to pray or to cuss. Of course, that statement can apply to other instruments as well, and the desire to speak spiritually and personally through instrumental compositions comes to mind with three new, highly individual rock records Dirty Three's Whatever You Love, You Are, Rick Rizzo and Tara Key's Dark Edson Tiger, and Sue Garner and Rick Brown's Still.

Though none of these records sound alike, each is a powerful work that brings a rare sense of emotion, warmth, and experimentation to modern rock. Only the Garner/Brown collaboration includes vocals, and then only on part of the record. But all three records share a desire to break beyond conventional rock songwriting to create something distinctly different and personal.

In the case of Dirty Three and Rizzo/Key, the musicians sound as if they're trying to conjure a meditative sense of intensely felt beauty and grace--only to have demons rise periodically to stir darker, more violent feelings. However, it's those moments of tension and explosiveness that keep the albums from becoming too tedious. Both are sweetly melancholy collections that pulse with life, passion, and individuality.

Garner and Brown similarly seek to make deeply felt music that avoids specific lyrical touchpoints. Though rooted in more conventional rock rhythms, their album, Still, is an experimental effort that relies on texture, offbeat sounds, and subconscious images rather than on straightforward song structure.

Of the three albums, Dirty Three's Whatever You Love, You Are is the most consistently moving. The Australian trio has been exploring its unique sound for more than five years now, and if anything, the new album is more cacophonous and dynamic than the band's previous efforts. Though extended moments of fragile beauty exist, bandleader Warren Ellis plays his violin with a more aggressive dissonance than in the past. Still, the sound he has created--a mix of classical music, Celtic airs, gypsy folk, European cabaret, and Velvet Underground-style rock--remains uniquely his own. Backed by the gorgeous chording of electric guitarist Mick Turner and the spare, evocative percussion of Jim White, Ellis creates hymns of diffuse pain and smudged elegance that speak from the heart rather than the intellect.

A classically trained violinist, Ellis has said that he left orchestras in search of a more earthy, tumultuous sound. He's versed in Celtic and folk fiddle styles, and he claims to dislike the use of a violin in rock bands. But the rhythms used by the Dirty Three are funereal rather than furious, and Ellis tends to employ long, bowed notes instead of the hyper tempos and obvious melodies often used by other electric fiddlers. He uses his electric pickup not so much to amplify his strings but to allow for the use of distortion pedals, feedback, and other effects. Even those who usually despise the sound of an electric violin might find themselves moved by Ellis' innovative musings.

Rick Rizzo and Tara Key come from different backgrounds than Ellis, but the duo's collaboration stakes out similar ground. Dark Edson Tiger is more hypnotic and repetitive than Dirty Three's album, but it too evokes a richly emotional sound from a balance of beauty and commotion.

Rizzo is the frontman of Chicago-based alt-rockers Eleventh Dream Day; Key, a New Yorker by way of Louisville, Ky., previously played in such smart-punk outfits as Antietam and the Babylon Dance Band. Together, they move away from youthful rage, creating an ambitious, textured instrumental music that at times breathes with warm serenity and at other times swells into a delirious uproar. The quieter moments sound like a Brian Eno album with more heart; the noisier segments exhibit an unusual sense of humanity that lifts the album above most other avant-garde guitar workouts.

Sue Garner and Rick Brown run in the same musical circles as Rizzo and Key--indeed, they contribute to each other's new works as well as sharing other collaborators. That said, though, Garner and Brown have made a vastly different album; for the most part, Still rocks to an up-tempo beat, eschewing the droning beauty of Dark Edson Tiger. Still, there's an undeniable sense of experimentation and sonic exploration that suggests the duo is seeking a new language that moves beyond past recorded efforts.

Both Garner and Brown are veterans of several East Coast bands, all of whom drew some measure of underground acclaim and attention. Garner played bass and sang in Run On, The Shams, Fish & Roses, and The Last Roundup. Brown, a percussionist and tape-loop specialist, also played in Run On and Fish & Roses, as well as such artcentric fringe groups as Les Batteries, Timber, and The Scene Is Now.

Together, they've been making music off and on for 15 years, but never has their collaboration resulted in something as unusual and revelatory as Still. Wholly modern yet more melodic than most music this experimental, Still uses Garner's warm, liquid alto over reverberating, unpredictable tracks. It's plenty noisy and nervous at times, but even the rampaging parts pound along in their own heady, singular way. Brown's tape loops occasionally get irritating, and the duo often sounds best whenever Garner is singing or when inventively deconstructing John Lennon's "It's So Hard." Nonetheless, Still is the kind of album that offers new discoveries with each listen.

It's said that Three Penny Opera composers Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht often argued over whether music or lyrics were better at evoking emotion. These three albums may not provide a definitive answer, but they certainly suggest how emotional, and ambitious, instrumental music can be.

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