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Jim O’Rourke: Simple Songs

Few people in the music industry today command as much respect as Jim O’Rourke: few have had their fingers in as many pies for as long, and fewer still have managed to become as important and influential without actively courting success or compromising their artistic values. Having first established himself in the early 90s as a key name within his native Chicago’s busy “post-rock” scene (most notably with David Grubbs in Gastr Del Sol), by the end of that decade O’Rourke found himself with a pretty strong claim to the title of “indie rock’s most in-demand.” As a guest player the multi-instrumentalist had appeared on records by Smog, Guided By Voices, Tony Conrad, Faust, the Red Krayola, Derek Bailey and Merzbow, among others; in addition his expert production had helped shape releases by groups and artists as diverse as Beach Boys devotees the High Llamas, Will Oldham, Stereolab, John Fahey, the Pastels and Melt Banana. Here was someone equally comfortable working on jazz or folk or noise or avant-rock or power-electronics projects, and for a while he seemed to be everywhere: during the five year period surrounding the millennium, O’Rourke was the bass player for Sonic Youth and unofficial sixth member of Wilco, having played on and produced the alt-country band’s career suicide/ career reviving masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its follow-up A Ghost Is Born, and in that time he also released three brilliant albums of his own that would come to be known as his “pop trilogy”. Although stylistically quite different, the instrumental guitar suite Bad Timing, weird pop opus Eureka! and classic rock homage Insignificance showcased O’Rourke “the star”, a gifted musician and composer, meticulous sonic perfectionist and engaging – if sardonic – lyricist; a conflicted genius who seemed as reluctant to bathe in the spotlight as he was confident in his own immense talent.
If his brief flirtation with the alt-rock big leagues swelled the ranks of his following, the subsequent retreat back to the margins has firmly established O’Rourke as a “cult artist”: now living in Tokyo, the 46 year old continues to drip-feed fans more avant-garde material (archival releases via Bandcamp, live improv recordings from jazz festivals, collaborations with the likes of Keiji Haino and Oren Ambarchi), but he hasn’t produced a proper, song-based solo album in fourteen years. As such, anticipation among the faithful for the re-emergence of “pop Jim”, the Jim one feels sure could easily lay waste to the mainstream if he ever felt so inclined, has been at fever pitch ever since the announcement of his fifth record for Drag City, Simple Songs, which promised a return to the ’60s and ’70s rock and pop inspired sound of 2001’s Insignificance and its predecessor Eureka!. Thankfully, we can stop holding our breath and let out a big, relieved belly laugh, because Simple Songs is exactly what we’ve been waiting for. After a clanging acoustic guitar fanfare that winks knowingly in the direction of Bad Timing and 2009’s The Visitor, opener “Friends With Benefits” quickly blooms into a barbed bar-room jam, and it’s evident immediately that O’Rourke’s secret recipe for the perfect rock song remains unchanged: jabbing like a pugilist (“Nice to see you once again/ Been a long time my friend/ Since you crossed my mind at all“), he and his band of Japanese session players dance playfully around each other, each component part of this deceptively intricate composition given MVP status even as they all collide in a tangle of cascading piano lines, crisp, lively drums and duelling guitars. Wrapping something so complex up in a cosy blanket of familiarity and accessibility is typical O’Rourke behaviour, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock to find that these “simple” songs are actually anything but; that they still manage to surprise when they unexpectedly pop into our heads at work, or when we’re showering, or trying to sleep, is testament to O’Rourke’s status as a master of his craft.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of too many others who have done what O’Rourke does as well as he does it here: Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson spring to mind, but after that I’m struggling, which I guess puts him in pretty exclusive company. As fascinating as his drone and noise projects generally are, or his improvised collaborations, or even his Fahey-inspired solo guitar pieces, O’Rourke’s pop compositions have always been absolutely compelling because he approaches them like a mad scientist, using his formal training and expertise to piece together from scraps of folk and jazz and pop and rock little Frankenstein’s monsters which he then proceeds to dress up in cute hair-slides and wooly sweaters and stripy tights. Listen to a track like “That Weekend” once, and you’ll likely come away remembering the needling, see-sawing riff that sticks to you like the Jaws theme, but listen a few more times and try to pick out the various elements that comprise that “simple” motif: at least three guitars, electric piano and strings, marshalled by the kind of oddly-timed yet precise drumming one would expect to hear on some obscure ’70s German prog record. Likewise “Last Year” presents itself as a ballsy rocker – complete with squealing guitar breaks – but on closer inspection it bears more resemblance to a fusion group like Weather Report soundtracking a barn dance – a crack team of seriously talented musicians relishing the opportunity to have fun with tempo changes and tricky time signatures in much the same way that science nerds love getting to blow things up with lasers they’ve designed and built themselves.
Even at their simplest, these songs are never dull. If the flat-footed funk of “Half Life Crisis” feels like a straightforward ’70s classic rock pastiche, it’s probably because it sounds like an amalgamation of several different Steely Dan deep cuts (right down to the brief trad-jazz interlude midway through), and let’s be honest: when were Steely Dan ever straightforward? The most basic, stripped-back moment here, the folky “These Hands“, may be laid bare musically but the lyrics – in which O’Rourke’s meat-hooks seem to have a mind of their own – invite all manner of possible readings: “Then again, my hand is not my friend/ Acting like it owns the place/ And then never sleeping when I want to/ Always has somewhere to go to.” Is it some sort of Cronenberg body horror nightmare, or a rumination on aging? Is it sexual, or something more sinister? Given his past form, it’s quite likely that for O’Rourke it’s a case of “all of the above”, and almost certain that he’s taking a considerable degree of pleasure in confusing his audience. Yes, the passage of time seems to have softened him ever so slightly, but there are still enough acidic put-downs and smart-mouthed punchlines (“If you stop to think about it/ Might be time to cash in your chips/ Cause I can tell from your face/ That you’re a charity case/ And your debt is piling up“) to remind us that O’Rourke is a treasure, and that we should count ourselves lucky that he’s seen fit, after all this time, to bless us with this wonderful record. Fans of his more outré material may feel short-changed, but one imagines O’Rourke’s response to be less “can’t please everyone” and more “do you think I give a shit?”; I, for one, am happier than I ever dared hope that he has, and I know many more will feel the same.
Simple Songs is out now via Drag City; check out “Last Year” below.

About foamhands

My name is Michael Dix; I'm a decade or so past being down with the kids, but to me new music never gets old. Apparently I like music that sounds like faulty kitchen appliances and ritual slaughter; really I just like what I like, whether that happens to be indie, pop, punk, hip hop, metal, electronica, Afrobeat or jazz. Follow me on Twitter @FoamHandsBlog to receive notifications of new posts and the occasional random brain-fart, and please share links wherever you can. Enjoy!

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