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Dirty Three: For Valentine's Day, A Wordless Love Song

It's a pleasure to spend the holiday rolling around in the sumptuous beauty of Dirty Three's "The Pier."
Annabel Mehran
It's a pleasure to spend the holiday rolling around in the sumptuous beauty of Dirty Three's "The Pier."

As any pessimistic Valentine's Day veteran can attest, the holiday is strewn with land mines: pressure to find someone, pressure to buy the right gifts, pressure to formalize casual relationships, pressure to even remember the damn thing is happening. Music doesn't help matters: Do you send a love song when you're not yet officially in love? What if you accidentally send a love song that everyone else knows was written about a faithful bloodhound? What if the songs you pick say too much, or too little?

That's why instrumental music — from bamp-chicka-boww funk and jazz to thunderously passionate classical pieces — is so underrated as a soundtrack to romance. For those seeking something stormily evocative, the wordless Australian rock trio Dirty Three has it all: There's swooning passion, but also conflict, loss, need and hope. Its music soars elegantly when violinist Warren Ellis lets his solos rip, but his grandiosity is undercut beautifully by Jim White's arrhythmic drum patterns and Mick Turner's guitars, which smear Dirty Three's songs like watercolors.

It's been seven years since Dirty Three last committed its radiant meanderings to an album — Ellis has long since set the band aside to focus on his work with Nick Cave — so the arrival of Toward the Low Sun in two weeks is cause for special celebration. In the meantime, it's a pleasure to spend Valentine's Day rolling around in the sumptuous beauty of "The Pier."

Alternately jagged, loping and imprecise, the track leaves its thematic intentions vague, though Dirty Three has ways of titling its songs to match the music's bittersweet gray areas. "The Pier" may conjure notions of a lover cast out to sea, but it takes a long, romantic walk along the way.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)