Release Date: May 19, 2015
Record label: Drag City
However you might feel about the divergence of styles in Jim O’Rourke’s back catalog, it’s tough not to be awestruck at the scope and scale of his many musical approaches. Having worked alongside everyone from Joanna Newsom to Akira Sakata and released albums as aesthetically opposed as Happy Days and Eureka, it’s safe to say that there are few other artists out there with a comparable level of flexibility in musical (and indeed non-musical) talents. In the past year alone, O’Rourke has worked collaboratively on at least five albums featuring either Oren Ambarchi, Keiji Haino, or Peter Brötzmann, all on the back of three additions to his abstract Steamroom series.
There was a time, from the late 1990s to the mid–2000s or so, when Jim O’Rourke sat at the center of a peculiar intersection of experimental, indie rock, and electronic music. His name on a record was an assurance of a certain level of quality, and he had his name on a great number of them. During these years, he engineered, produced, mixed, and played on records by Smog, Sam Prekop, Faust, John Fahey, Wilco, Stereolab, Tony Conrad, Sonic Youth (of which he was a member), Beth Orton, Superchunk, Phill Niblock, and many more.
With the ever authoritative Wikipedia listing 20 solo albums from O’Rourke since 1989, excluding collaborations and time spent in Sonic Youth, Wilco and other bands, the news that he was to return with his first album with vocals since 2001 was still surprising. In a way, Simple Songs picks up where Insignificance left us: a smooth, heavily layered and structured approach to the craft (betraying the album title) underpinned with some of the most biting, surreal and often hilarious lyrics indie rock currently offers. It’s strongest at the front end, with This Weekend and Half Life Crisis almost swaggering out of the speakers, before changing up their time signatures and instrumentation in the blink of an eye.
Chicago musician Jim O’Rourke has a deep and varied catalog, from avant-garde composition and experimental jazz to indie-rock and wild noise, and collaborations in one form or another with the likes of Sonic Youth, Wilco, Superchunk, Beth Orton, Will Oldham and Stereolab, among plenty of others. None of it is simple, so don’t be fooled by the title of O’Rourke’s latest: Simple Songs is only simple by comparison. While these eight new tunes are more straightforward than much of his work, that is not to suggest they are lacking in intricacy.
Long and mostly associated with avant-garde musical experimentation, Jim O'Rourke hasn't released a rock-songs-with-lyrics-and-singing-based album since 2001, and his return to the form has yielded songs that are anything but simple. The well-respected multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer who originally hails from Chicago has spent most of this century living in Tokyo, working on music constantly but mostly staying out of the indie rock public eye. With his primary collaborator/superhuman percussionist Glenn Kotche busy in Wilco and also an ocean away, O'Rourke wasn't sure how to bring the complex rhythmic and arrangement ideas in his head to life.
While many artists boast a diverse resume, shuffling through Jim O’Rourke’s complete catalog is a mind-scrambling experience. He’s collaborated with Japanese noise legend Merzbow, and he contributed to and had a heavy influence on Wilco’s seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He’s experimented on his own and spent six years as a member of Sonic Youth.
Jim O’RourkeSimple Songs(Drag City)Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars The title seems clear enough, but little in Jim O’Rourke’s extensive catalog can be taken at face value. The guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/producer/auteur is a true renaissance man. He’s best known for his avant-garde work as a collaborator, solo act and member of acts such as Gastr del Sol, Smog, and most famously, Sonic Youth.
Fourteen years ago, Jim O’Rourke released an album called Insignificance. It remains a work of bitter, twisted, cathartic genius – seven songs with unpredictable structures, indelible hooks and relentlessly funny lyrics, sneered out by a man who sounded all too aware of his greatness. “Listen to my works,” you could almost hear the indie rock Ozymandias say, “ye hipsters, and despair.” And then…silence.
Jim O’Rourke — Simple Songs (Drag City)Jim O’Rourke did not announce Simple Songs, his first solo record of songs in 14 years, with a video unveiling a key track on a high-profile site in order to lure back listeners. He previewed it with a commercial that shows some grey-whiskered, inappropriately enthusiastic loon haranguing a bewildered-looking young fellow in a minivan, with just four seconds of an instrumental break stashed away near the end. Is this how he sees his return to the tower of song? If so, he portrays it with far more good humor than anything else on this chilly, deliberately off-putting, but deeply fascinating record.
The rule of thumb for comprehending Jim O’Rourke as a creator of pop songs is to savor the exquisite details without getting hung up on a particular outcome. “Simple Songs,” his first singer-songwriter album in 14 years, has the arid lushness and prickly intentions you’d expect — but he doesn’t want you to get too comfortable. “Nice to see you once again,” is his welcoming first line on the album, murmured on a tune called “Friends With Benefits.” He deflates it within the next breath: “Been a long time, my friend/Since you crossed my mind at all.” What follows in the lyrics, against a bright wash of chiming piano, strummed guitars and rubbery bass lines, has the ring of a transactional relationship.
"Nice to see you once again/been a long time my friends/since you crossed my mind at all." So begins the first Jim O'Rourke record of original songs with vocals since 2001's Insignificance – the words both embracing his fans and keeping them at arm's length. Such ambivalence is nothing new: O'Rourke is as famous for his sour moods as he is for his astounding musical range, jumping effortlessly between Bacharachian song craft, ambient drone, twitchy electronica and American primitive guitar forms (while also producing Grammy-winning albums for Wilco and playing guitar for Sonic Youth). But focus on that first line, the bit about it being nice to see you again.