Great Debate #4: Horse Stories Vs Ocean Songs
Warren Ellis recently described the Dirty Three’s forthcoming new album as their “definitive” release, but most would argue they’ve been there twice before: 1996’s 'Horse Stories' and 1998’s 'Ocean Songs'. In the next installment of our summer debate series, ANDREW RAMADGE puts his case forward for the former – even though 'Ocean Songs' seems to be the more populist choice. Weigh in for your chance to win a $250 record store voucher of your choosing thanks to Hyundai’s Veloster.
Sweet melancholy, or catharsis? That’s what it comes down to when choosing between the Dirty Three’s two ‘90s masterpieces, Horse Stories and Ocean Songs.
The blaze of ‘Sue’s Last Ride’ and ‘Red’, or the slow-moving beauty of ‘Sea Above, Sky Below’? For me, it’s always been an easy choice – and it’s as much about the imagery of earth and sea as it is the music. The Dirty Three first came to me on screen, not the stereo. The opening scene of Praise. It’s burned into my mind. The old Holden logo spinning round and round on a hubcap hurtling down a dirt road, kicking up dust to the tune of ‘I Remember A Time When Once You Used To Love Me’.
It was one of my first, and most vivid introductions to Australian culture outside the suburbs of coastal New South Wales. I hadn’t lived in Sydney or Melbourne yet. I didn’t know Peter Fenton was a singer in a rock band. I didn’t find out until after I’d seen him in Love Is A Four Letter Word.
I tracked down the soundtrack to Praise, and then Horse Stories. For a long time, I couldn’t help but associate the Dirty Three with the film. With heat and dirt and sweat and things made of brick and wood. It makes sense to me even now. The humidity of ‘Sue’s Last Ride’ is stifling. ‘Red’ is a brawl in some shitty hotel with a VB sign, spilling out into the street.
Compared to imagery like that, even the cover art of Ocean Songs feels like relief. Released two years later, in 1998, it’s the cool change to Horse Stories’ heat. The songs are calmer, more fluid and more beautiful. The theme is more focused. For the first time, the band’s three instruments are accompanied by piano.
There’s no denying the beauty of Ocean Songs. Its pinnacles, ‘Authentic Celestial Music’ and ‘Sea Above, Sky Below’ are probably the Dirty Three’s best moments. But, for me, they’re too gentle. Too melancholy. Listening to Ocean Songs can be a dangerous inspiration – it’s a little too suited to drinking wine and feeling sorry for yourself for my liking.
Of course, opinion is divided – and perhaps even the band favours Ocean Songs. That record has been the favourite to revisit in recent years, at All Tomorrow’s Parties gigs and special Don’t Look Back shows around the world, with Nick Cave on piano lending an extra level of interest. Horse Stories doesn’t even score a place in John O’Donnell, Craig Mathieson and Toby Creswell’s list of the 100 Best Australian albums, while Ocean Songs comes in at #76.
It’s the other way around in triple j’s Hottest 100 Australian Albums of All Time list as voted by members of the music industry, with Horse Stories at #58 and Ocean Songs at #76. In fact, the industry appears to enjoy the band’s earlier work in general, with second album, the self-titled Dirty Three, coming in between the pair at #68.
Thankfully, there is one list which puts the argument to rest – the triple “Hottest Australian Albums of All Time* countdown voted by the public. Neither record makes an appearance, edged out by Jet, The Temper Trap and two Cat Empire albums.
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