A signature sound can be a comfort and a curse–just ask the Dirty Three. There’s no mistaking the blend of Warren Ellis’s extravagantly emotive violin, Jim White’s loose yet forceful drumming, and Mick Turner’s churning, understated guitar. Their unusual instrumentation and their penchant for surging, open-ended instrumentals instantly set them apart from the rest of the performers on the Melbourne, Australia, pub circuit when they started out in 1992. But with each album it’s gotten harder for the Dirty Three to stay interested in themselves. Their first attempt to follow their 2000 release, Whatever You Love, You Are (Touch and Go), failed, in Ellis’s words, “to sound like a step in any direction from the previous record, so we shelved it.” The three men pursued other projects for a year: Ellis, a member of the Bad Seeds, continued to play with Nick Cave and started a family; White toured with Smog and Will Oldham; and Turner recorded a solo record, Moth (Drag City), and started a label, King Crab, that released Ellis’s solo debut, 3 Pieces for Violin. Apparently the time apart did the trick–when they reunited a year later in Melbourne to record She Has No Strings Apollo they had a few new tricks up their collective sleeve. Ellis floats a lovely piano melody over subliminal strings and drumbeats on “Long Way to Go With No Punch,” and the weepy “Sister Let Them Try and Follow” benefits from the relaxed bass counterpoint overdubbed by Turner. Not all their experiments succeed–the band sounds like it needs a new transmission on “Rude (and Some Slight Return),” which lurches gracelessly between pensive balladry and unpersuasive blues-rock riffing–but the willingness to mix things up has helped the Three find new life in their old sound. The slow-burning “Alice Wading” is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but it seethes with more tension than anything the band’s recorded since 1996’s Horse Stories. Bassist Zak Sally of Low, who collaborated with the band for an EP on the Konkurrent label, has joined them for their current American tour, which brings them to Chicago for the first time in three years. Souled American guitarist Scott Tuma opens; his trio will negotiate the eerie, narcotic tunes from The River 1 2 3 4, his upcoming album on the local Truckstop label. Oldham will play a solo set in the middle slot as Bonnie Prince Billy. Friday, April 4, 9 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Buster Frictal.