Low/Dirty Three 'In the Fishtank'

CD of the Week

May 31, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Lots of plunking, strumming and sawing going on In the Fishtank, the new EP collaboration from Minnesota minimalists Low and Australian instrumental trio Dirty Three. On first listen, none of it sounds particularly skillful, and sometimes it's hard to know whether the groups' less-is-more approach is indicative of restraint or a lack of good ideas. Repeated listens, however, reveal some masterfully controlled musical performances.

A good batch of songs and fine singing from Low's Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk go a long way to making this collaboration a success. On the EP's opening track,"I Hear ... Goodnight," Parker and Sparhawk harmonize beautifully over a spare, slow instrumental track of guitar, violin, delicately stroked snare drum and high hat. The duo's singing is straightforward and unaffected, and when Sparhawk takes the vocal lead, it's one of the record's most understated but arresting moments.

The CD gets more adventurous on a nearly 10-minute version of Neil Young's murder ballad, "Down by the River." The group does a fair amount of ambient noodling before getting to the song proper. At times there is so much musical space that the sound of fingers lifting from guitar strings becomes a kind of feature of the performance.

But all in all, the song fares well in this quiet mood. As elsewhere Mimi Parker's vocal achieves the perfect balance of restraint and emotion. Hers is a beautifully clear instrument, with just the hint of vibrato.

"Invitation Day" finds Low and Dirty Three keeping the same dead slow pace. Big Star's dirge-like"Holocaust" comes to mind as the track sounds as if it might ground to a halt at any moment. Eventually the song fades into some wonderfully scratchy violin from Dirty three's Warren Ellis.

"When I Called Upon Your Seed," another ballad, features some fairly unremarkable guitar playing. It's still a lovely song, and the guitar playing is tastefully uninteresting, so it's not really an issue. The track is dominated by organ, which is a surprising (sort of) new sound color for the record.

Warren Ellis' violin takes center stage on "Cody." As the album's lone instrumental track, it should appeal to Dirty Three Fans. Ellis provides the most provocative instrumental voice on the record with his simple yet soulful playing.

On "Lordy," the final track, the group goes for a traditional Appalachian sound. As the fastest song on the record, its tempo only barely surpasses the hear t rate of a hibernating grizzly bear. "Lordy" sounds like something that might have come from a Gillian Welch album, though not nearly as good.

Although In the Fishtank is decidedly decaffeinated in approach, it does provide some quietly exhilirating moments. Hopefully, based on the six tracks included here, Low and Dirty Three will consider a future collaboration.