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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.


GREAT DEBATE #3: Are Cassettes Here To Stay?

GREAT DEBATE #2: Triple J Unearthed Radio

GREAT DEBATE #1: Hourly Daily Vs Hi Fi Way

  -   Published on Friday, January 27 2012 by Andrew Ramadge.
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Your Comments

anonymous  said about 3 years ago:

andyr's back, yeah!

that's all i've got on this one.

unvisible  said about 3 years ago:

Based solely on cover art, I think that ''Horse commits suicide by jumping off bridge'' comes out slightly ahead of ''Mermaid with encephalitis ponders her nipples being unusually far apart''.

However, I think we can all agree that finger-painting is the real winner.

slothman  said about 3 years ago:

i prefer horse stories, if only for susan's last ride

Stocky  said about 3 years ago:

They're both great but I actually think Whatever You Love, You Are is their best album. It's their most melodic and doesn't go for too long. Mick Harvey thinks so, too.

livingincanada  said about 3 years ago:

My Horse Stories album is signed by the band and Warren wrote ''Love Always Warren''. I have a lot of sentimental attachment to that album and listening to it conjures fond memories - not least the show they did at PICA on the Horse Stories tour which was one of the best live performances I've ever been witness to.

mrmagoo  said about 3 years ago:

self titled beats them both

FrankieTeardrop  said about 3 years ago:

While both these albums are great, with Horse Stories in my opinion having the better songs, I feel that the ''definitive'' Dirty Three album is their self-titled one from 1995. It was their second record, following on from 94's Sad & Dangerous, and on this one they really nailed their sound and ideas - created the template, so to speak.

Just check out the track list:

''Indian Love Song''
''Better Go Home Now''
''Odd Couple''
''Kim's Dirt''
''Everything's Fucked''
''The Last Night''
''Dirty Equation''

Every one a masterpiece, that still outshines a lot of their later compositions every time you see them play one of these songs live. ''Indian Love Song'' and ''Everything's Fucked'' make *Dirty Three'' the album which I keep returning to.

MelonHCST  said about 3 years ago:

Horse Stories

FrankieTeardrop  said about 3 years ago:

...and if I had refreshed the page earlier, I would have agreed with mrmagoo.

ghoti-max  said about 3 years ago:

Personally, I think their upcoming record that I haven't heard yet is better than all of the albums mentioned in this thread.

spooky  said about 3 years ago:

They're both beautiful, but Ocean Songs is the more whole; they weren't ready to murder eachother the whole time they were recording it, and it shows.

Ben  said about 3 years ago:

agreed with magoo and frankie

alec m  said about 3 years ago:

Ocean Songs by a mile, but I can't think of one interesting point to argue about.

alec m  said about 3 years ago:

Self titled is overrated.

alec m  said about 3 years ago:

Mick Turner/Tren Brothers beats Dirty Three

spooky  said about 3 years ago:

<--- I suppose my bias towards OS may be emanating from this fella

do love Tren Bros

turkey_sandwich  said about 3 years ago:

Sgt. Fabulous  said about 3 years ago:

Horse Stories is the horse. Ocean Songs is the water that you lead it to...

The journey. And the destination. But will it drink? I guess sometimes it's the thrill of the chase. In my opinion, it is. Horse Stories is the winner for this fellow.

turkey_sandwich  said about 3 years ago:

i think the horse just wanted to go swimming..

turkey_sandwich  said about 3 years ago:

drinking the ocean water would make it sick.

sister  said about 3 years ago:

Like MrMagoo and Frankieteardrop, I'm a fan of the self-titled album. It contained everything you ever needed to hear from them.

cowbell1  said about 3 years ago:

Horse Stories

Mattsamaman  said about 3 years ago:

I was front row for ATP Mt. Buller where they played ''Ocean Songs''. It was a transcendental moment, sure. But I still prefer ''Horse Stories''. No other band from no other place could have made an album like that. That mixture of sublime beauty and primal terror is as quintessentially Australian as VB and kangaroos.

Mattsamaman  said about 3 years ago:

... that said, can we put aside our debate differences and agree that the Dirty Three have to be the most underrated band in the world?

NiteShok  said about 3 years ago:

I am much fonder of Horse Stories. My favourite D3 album.

caseyrice  said about 3 years ago:

new one's a ripper

NiteShok  said about 3 years ago:

You'd know, Casey. Answer the damn debate!

bamesjaker  said about 3 years ago:

Agree with the self-titled album splinter group (and Frankie's as always extremely lucid and pointed commentary).

Prince-Amphibian  said about 3 years ago:

impossible to compare. different times, different situations..

Simon_Sez  said about 3 years ago:

Horse Stories has the cover of ''I Remember A Time When Once You Used To Love Me'', so in my book, that wins.

But my personal faves are Sad & Dangerous, and the self-titled album. Every now and again a band comes along that redefine how music can be played. The Dirty Three are one of those bands.

Fred Dag  said about 3 years ago:

Another vote for self titled

Ralph Malph  said about 3 years ago:

horse stories vs. ocean songs

There is proof right there. Do I win the car?

tugboat  said about 3 years ago:

They are equally good.
$250 plz.

GrantleyBuffalo  said about 3 years ago:

Yesterday was hot and dusty. I preferred Ocean Songs over Horse Stories yesterday.

Today is hot and humid, with the occasional torrential downpour. Much more self-titled weather.

Incremental  said about 3 years ago:

Horse Stories is probably the definitive Dirty Three album. That said, and even though it's kind of an outlier in their discography (or maybe because of it), Ocean Songs will probably always be THE D3 album for me. It could be the most beautiful record I've ever heard.

geneclark70  said about 3 years ago:

'Horse Stories' is the blistering sun beating down on an open expanse of brown land. 'Ocean Songs' is a full moon over rippling silver water. Both sustain, transport and inspire, so how can you possibly choose between them? The only way is to follow Andrew Ramadge's lead and make a personal choice borne of experience.

I first saw The Dirty Three at the Annandale Hotel in 1996 on a muggy summer's night a few months before the release of 'Horse Stories'. I had queued to get in behind a ragged-looking Evan Dando and was shocked when the girl on the door refused to admit him, shaking her head with a curt but emphatic ''you know you're banned mate''. What? Dando was a star, wasn't he? Yet he stumbled out of the pub alone, for reasons that probably had a lot more to do with the subject matter of 'Horse Stories' than I realised at the time. I don't remember the support (Crow?), only that Ellis, Turner and White were the most engaging trio I'd ever seen grace a stage, playing a set dominated by the new material: '1000 Miles' sounded ageless but impossibly weary; 'Hope' was threaded by a violin-line that sounded desperate and anguished until the chorus thankfully offered enough respite to make sense of the song's title. Warren's between-song banter was typically effusive but that night his stories contained more anger than humour, dominated by oblique stories of friendship, loss and death. A 1-2 punch of 'I Remember A Time When Once You Used To Love Me' followed by an epic stab at 'Sue's Last Ride' made sense of his words. For the encore, Nick Cave joined them onstage for some folk song or shanty that I didn't recognise. It could only disappoint compared to the intensity of what had preceded it (you know it's a good show when a Nick Cave appearance is the letdown of the night). When I left I noticed that Evan Dando was still nearby, alone, sitting on the kerb of Parramatta Road, dropping something into the drains. It looked like money.

'Ocean Songs' came out in 1998 and the much-missed Waterfront Records celebrated its release by giving away free tickets to a small in-store performance that you could attend if you pre-ordered the album, along with a poster that the band were happy to sign on the night (it's on my bedroom wall still). But even better they offered us early buyers a chance to come along to the album's launch party, aptly enough to be held on a boat cruising Sydney harbour. We boarded to the sound of Charles Mingus' 'The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady' LP, a record I had first heard only that same month, while the support act was Liam Hayes, aka Plush, a songwriter from Chicago who has become a bit of a cult figure over the years (I like his records now but thought it was a bit too MOR/Elton John at the time). Then the Dirty Three squeezed into a corner of the main cabin and played a set of songs from their new record as we puttered around the harbour, back and forth beneath the bridge. The performance was lush, soothing, hypnotic, formed from a very different energy than that earlier show at the Annandale; the band were relaxed and enjoying themselves, Warren's spoken interludes more genial and comedic. It was a fantastic night and I'd be very surprised if I'm lucky enough to see the band in such cordial and intimate circumstances again.

Still, it's that first performance of 'Horse Stories' and earlier material that sticks with me most, so 'Horse Stories' is my choice. The heat, the yearning, the barely-suppressed anger, whipped into spiralling music that paradoxically embodied the sweaty summer ordinariness of inner-city living while simultaneously transcending it, offering glimpses of different landscapes - of different lives - that lie far away, so close, just on the other side of the next song.

ASaltySalute  said about 3 years ago:

Both albums are great. Ocean Songs for me purely because it was my introduction to the Dirty Three and gives me somewhat of a sentimental feeling upon listening.

turkey_sandwich  said about 3 years ago:

i think gene wants the prize...

TimChuma  said about 3 years ago:

Live! at Meredith? Or it would be if the director of the Meredith doco would give me back my copy. Don't have Ocean Songs so I can't compare the two.

djbollocks  said about 3 years ago:

There's no way I could choose between their self-titled, Horse Stories or Ocean Songs, they're all equally brilliant.

steveholt  said about 3 years ago:

It seems counter intuitive to pick one Dirty Three album over another. They are my favourite band hands down. But unlike a lot of my other favourite bands or artists it is rare that the catalogue of work can be taken as a whole, as opposed to one or two albums being clear standouts. Maybe that's one of the reasons I love them so much is that they have been able to sustain such brilliance over the course of so many years. They could be forgiven for hanging up the violin when your debut album's lead track is Kim's Dirt. Thankfully, for us, they can even pull off an album which has bag pipes in it. If forced to choose one however it would be Ocean Songs, if only for the fact that as an album as a whole, I think it is the bands most complete work. It is an easy album to digest as a whole. There is a coherence within the album that Horse Stories just doesn't possess which I feel probably comes down to the tension in the band surrounding the recording of that album. You are acutely aware of a fairly violent and destructive undertone throughout Horse Stories. It can be harsh and brutal which when against the juxtaposition of Ocean Songs, highlights the latters effective use of space and allowing the songs to breathe somewhat. The minimalism of the album has always struck me as when the Dirty Three seemingly found another voice and spoke to the listener in a different way. Which is an odd thing to say of a band that is so sparse anyway, but is an important discourse which you could see utilised more on future albums to wonderful effect. Whatever You Are You Love is especially brilliant. You can see the linear relationship between 'Authentic Celestial Music' off Ocean Songs and 'I Offered It Up To The Stars And The Night Sky' off Whatever You Love You Are. I don't agree with the assertion that Ocean Songs is too gentle or too melancholy. And I certainly don't agree that this is a 'bottle of wine' record. I think this undersells the album greatly and is a reductive and lazy description. I've never viewed Ocean Songs as any more or less contemplative than any other record and this implies that the record is somehow too soft. I was struck on the recent 'Ocean Songs' tour at the sheer force of the live versions of these songs, not only in volume, but were fuller and almost menacing. It is too easy to apply the melancholy tag to music that languishes and requires patience. I couldn't help but feel almost underwhelmed by the encore of 'Everythings Fucked' (which incidentally is my favourite Dirty Three song) after experiencing what had preceded it. Of course there is sadness in the songs, but overwhelmingly beauty and a sense of solace are at the fore with the album. 'Deep Waters' is a classic example of the Dirty Three's ability to derive exhilaration and a sense of uplift from the seeds of solemnity. Arguably it is the Dirty Three's best song, and live it still is the cornerstone of any Dirty Three set, and it still seems to retain a powerful presence stacked up against their other songs. I vividly remember returning home from an overseas flight from Scotland to Australia via London, being horrendously jet lagged and somehow upon returning home mustering up the energy to go to a Dirty Three gig that night. Fortunately upon perching myself side of stage and miraculously not being told to move, I somehow avoided falling asleep. 'Deep Waters' is my lasting memory from that gig. It seemed a perfect distillation of homesickness for an Australian summer at the beach after having spent the past 3-months under grey skies and knee deep in snow traveling through Europe. All a bit convenient I know, but I couldn't help but be drawn in by the imagery. Incidentally I still have a photo from that gig, of Warren Ellis on his knees furiously playing, which over exposed on printing. The bleeding colours seemed to perfectly reflect my state of jet lag that night.

andydepressant  said about 3 years ago:

Based solely on cover art, I think that ''Horse commits suicide by jumping off bridge'' comes out slightly ahead of ''Mermaid with encephalitis ponders her nipples being unusually far apart''.

However, I think we can all agree that finger-painting is the real winner.

$250 right there. But based on the results of the last debate it seems making it all academic and writerly is the way to win. Unless I was reading the wrong Max post.

Horse Stories is the only D3 album I can remember the songs from. It's the only one I can say had tracks I recognized as songs rather than textures. Like Ramadge though I got a good intro to that album from the film and soundtrack cd and never delved much in the others so it could be just laziness on my part. Still nice to be reminded to check them out though so thanks GD4.

Anyway having the luck to see the D3 thunderstorm Meredith is a long way better than $250.

andydepressant  said about 3 years ago:

Do Hipsters like the Dirty Three? I need a cuntroversy fix.

betamale  said about 3 years ago:

Ocean Songs for me, as others have said it is their most fully realised album - S/T and Sad & Dangerous are brilliant in their own way but lack a true ''album'' flow. Horse Stories is a fine album but I find gets a bit too unrelentingly intense at times.

Ocean Songs is a masterpiece of balance and subtle intensity. Somehow the theme of the ocean just works with the music. It actually feels like a voyage in a creaky ship with the stars above you and the loneliness, yearning, madness, isolation and exhultation all evoked over the course of the album.

Anyone who finds it ''soft'' or ''relaxing'' maybe needs to listen harder. Authentic Celestial Music is the centrepiece of the album for me and exactly as its title describes - the most transcendent piece of music these ears have ever heard.

andydepressant  said about 3 years ago:

Anyone who finds it ''soft'' or ''relaxing'' maybe needs to listen harder.

This sentence conjures some pretty funny images for me.

Prince-Amphibian  said about 3 years ago:

actually, whats kinda better than both is 'A Stange Holiday'. It was issued between albums, as an EP. sublime. if you havent heard it, you are missing out.

Prince-Amphibian  said about 3 years ago:

recorded in 1997. not issued until 2003.

Pex  said about 3 years ago:

Horse Stories by far. was very disappointed with watered down (pun intended) ''Ocean Songs''

blake3030  said about 3 years ago:

Authentic Celestial Music, Sea above, Sky below and Deep waters are why Ocean Songs is better than Horse Stories. Both solid albums, but those songs set OS apart. That won't win me the $250, but it's the truth.

PaulsGrandfather  said about 3 years ago:

As someone who was disappointed with the sheer lack of stories about horses being told in ''Horse Stories'', (an album utterly devoid of vocals at all, let alone stories), Ocean Songs wins my vote.

Ocean Songs more accurately depicts the content within (songs) and makes more references to the ocean (5) compared to Horse Stories' horse references (2).

As if to proclaim its own superiority, Ocean Songs also makes a horse reference, proudly proclaiming itself a better purveyor of all the aforementioned concepts.

thedropkick  said about 3 years ago:

Horse songs nnnneeyyyyyyyy

NiteShok  said about 3 years ago:

As if to proclaim its own superiority, Ocean Songs also makes a horse reference, proudly proclaiming itself a better purveyor of all the aforementioned concepts.


steveholt  said about 3 years ago:

New song is amazing. But that was a given

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