Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs Drag City dc620cd (2015)
Jim O’Rourke has defied expectations his entire career. His pop albums (Eureka, Halfway to a Threeway, Insignificance, and The Visitor), efforts as a producer, and stint in Sonic Youth garnered him the most attention. But he stepped away from the limelight and moved to Japan — get the entire back story in the excellent article “Eureka” in Uncut (July 2015). Simple Songs is another pop album, steeped in 1970s prog rock but done up the O’Rourke way. The music is incredibly intricate. Hardly a second goes by without some sort of shift in meter, instrumentation, lyrical focus…something. Yet O’Rourke never makes the music self-consciously weird. He always keeps the music immediate and catchy. In a way, this album is a kind of tribute to the music of his formative years. Though rather than fawning reenactments, he treat the project with unwavering determination, as if he has to earn the right to indulge his favorite pop-rock idioms by putting extra effort into the production. Lyrically, he is back again with veiled and not-so-veiled misanthropic rants. But these are not really mean spirited so much as they are a device to draw in the audience and build a rapport. Much like trading insults to forge a friendship, O’Rourke alludes to the baseness of humanity, throwing himself in with that ignoble lot too. While I never formally met O’Rourke, many years ago I was at a concert festival where he played bass in a band and then he stood next to me during Borbetomagus‘ set. Unlike one of his band members, who played the role of arrogant star, O’Rourke seemed like a perfectly normal guy. That same normal but talented guy comes through on this record.
Maybe Simple Songs won’t be for everyone. It is pop/rock music, but of a kind of introverted kind. But chances are anyone inclined to like this at all will love it.
Jim O’Rourke – Bad Timing Drag City DC120 (1997)
If you followed what Jim O’Rourke was up to with Gastr del Sol, his fascination with John Fahey so evident on Bad Timing should come as no surprise. It’s a decent album, perhaps a bit bland. The thing is, why not just listen to a Fahey album instead? Anyway, O’Rourke would go on to bigger and better things in the next few years, particularly the magnificent Halfway to a Threeway and Insignificance.
Jim O’Rourke – Eureka Drag City dc162cd (1999)
With Eureka Jim O’Rourke started to look like one of the most significant pop/rock artists of his time. While some of the American Primitivisms of his previous album Bad Timing are still present here, O’Rourke had now became noticeably more eclectic. You can trace influences of Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Burt Bacharach, Robert Wyatt beyond those of John Fahey. O’Rourke employs a kind of allegorical approach here. Whether you adopt the classical Greek formulation (something that “speaks otherwise”) or the more modern one formulated by Walter Benjamin (“Allegories are, in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the realm of things.”), there are fragments of (recent, popular) musical history employed in a way that takes on other meaning. The fragments he appropriates are used reverentially — you can tell O’Rourke deeply appreciates it all — though at the same time there is a tacit acceptance that it all is of the past and can’t be reproduced in its original context or with its original meaning.
I really loved this when it came out, and it was probably the first O’Rourke solo album I remember hearing. If looking back this seems less than it did at first it’s only because O’Rourke outdid himself on Halfway to a Threeway and Insignificance in the coming years. And perhaps also the magnificence of the first six tracks here greatly outstrip the rather weak last two. Still, I have to say something like Eureka, and contemporaneous efforts like his contribution to Illuminati, seemed a big influence on the mild resurgence of orchestrated pop that led to things like Joanna Newsom‘s Ys a few years down the line. I guess I’ll have to wait and see if he ever releases an album titled “Castaway” to continue the trend of naming stuff after Nicolas Roeg movies — Bad Timing, Eureka, Insignificance…
Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance Drag City dc202cd (2001)
I’m not entirely sure why, but somehow Insignificance seems to be one of the great albums of its age. As a lyricist O’Rourke may not be Bob Dylan, even if most of the time he’s channeling the same mean spirit that populates “Positively Fourth Street” or Blood on the Tracks. He’s also probably not anyone’s idea of a charismatic singer. But pairing the underachieving, utter non-event of the words and vocals with the the nuanced, finely orchestrated — yet still hard driving — instrumentals and arrangements is a masterstroke of genius. Dylan carried the soul of the Beat generation to someplace new. O’Rourke carried the angst of alternative and indie rock to its pointedly ironic pinnacle. This music has an empty sophistication and sense of aimlessness that mark it as something totally representative of its time. I find the fact that it’s somewhat unnoticed to be all the more a hallmark of the diffuseness of everything it stands for.