Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs

jim-orourke-simple-songs

In the last minute of “Hotel Blue,” the fourth track on his new LP Simple Songs, Jim O’Rourke belts out his lines with an emotional directness we haven’t heard in his work before. He sings, and sings with a sincere presence and confidence perhaps previously absent from his fine work. The song builds from a few strums of acoustic guitar into a crescendo worthy of Harry Nilsson.

Like Nilsson (or Nilsson’s hero Randy Newman), O’Rourke’s work is saturated in a dark humor that’s perhaps easy to ignore because his music sounds so  pretty. Simple Song’s first track “Friends with Benefits” reveals that welcoming-repulsing impetus in its opening lines: “Nice to see you once again / Been a long time, my friend / since you’ve crossed my mind at all.”

The initial moments of “Friends with Benefits” feel like an overture, unfurling in little episodes that recall O’Rourke’s 2009 suite The Visitor. The track eventually coalesces and climaxes in Terry Riley violin strokes, reverberating, decisive guitar lines, and stomping drums.

These musical elements continue throughout the album, which is often driven by piano riffs cribbed from all your favorite ’70s groups. Standout track “Half Life Crisis” bounces along in a Steely Dan strut, punctuated by Brian May guitar squiggles. Dissonant orchestral touches creep into the song’s final moments, recalling some of O’Rourke’s more “experimental” work—but also calling back to The Beatles.

Simple Songs feels like the culmination 0f some of O’Rourke’s projects over the past decade, and it made me revisit them. The Visitor sounds almost like a sketchbook for this record,and All Kinds of People, the record of Burt Bacharach songs O’Rourke recorded with various vocalists, feels in retrospect like a practice run at a personal pop record. Simple Songs builds on O’Rourke’s previous two “pop” records (Eureka and Insignificance), and even though it’s not named after a Nic Roeg film, it completes a trilogy of sorts. (But I hope this is more than a trilogy, to be clear).

The emotional intensity promised in “Hotel Blue” returns in the album’s closing tracks. “End of the Road” sees O’Rourke singing—not just talk-singing, but really singing—over McCartney piano and strings. “If you were at sea / They’d throw you overboard,” our misanthrope suggests. And in the final rousing track “All Your Love,” O’Rourke sings, “I’m so happy now / And I blame you,” before promising that “All your love / Will never change me.”

I’m not very good at writing about music, and really, writing is no substitute for listening. You can stream the album now at NPR—just do it over a real sound system or at least with some proper headphones. It sounds too good for your laptop’s tinny little noise holes.

Simple Songs is out on vinyl, etc., from Drag City next week.

Jim O’Rourke Live in Tokyo in June of 2014

Love Liza (Full Film)

Jim O’Rourke Plays “Women of the World” (Live on Christmas Day, 2013)

Yeah I know it’s upwards of 66% the back of some young dude’s head at times, shot on some smartphone (?) but lord I love this.

Jim O’Rourke at Work on the Grizzly Man Soundtrack; Special Appearance by Werner Herzog

RIP Cynthia Dall

Pitchfork has reported the death of singer-songwriter Cynthia Dall. Dall was a frequent collaborator with fellow Drag City musician Bill Callahan, who sang and played on her 1996 album, which is now called Untitled, but was simply known as that record with the awesome cover and strange awesome songs when it came out: there was no attribution, although it clearly bore the mark of Callahan and fellow Drag City wunderkind Jim O’Rourke. Untitled was the strange hazy soundtrack for my last teenage years; Dall’s songs are still in my blood and brain. Her young death—she was only 41—feels surreal. Dall released Sound Restores Young Men in 2002, and was apparently working on demos for a new album at the time of her death.

From the Drag City website:

We are shocked and deeply disappointed to post this notice: Cynthia Dall passed away at her home in Sacramento last Thursday.

Cynthia was a muse that crossed over into actual-artist-dom. Her self was her original art, a spirit and image that was inspirational on first sight. The ’90s were a great time to start playing music when you didn’t really know the first thing about it other than you liked it, andCynthia was able to use her unique abilities along with her incredible energy to inspire those around her to help her make two really great albums.

It hasn’t sunken in yet that we won’t be hearing from Cindy again. Though she hadn’t released a new album in ten years, she called in regularly, sometimes to talk about her music and plans, sometimes to talk about everything BUT music and plans. She was an enormous fan of the world, and there were few topics that didn’t engage her in some way. Even outrage was conveyed with an enormous vivacity that could not be suppressed. It was this energy that lifted her up above the melancholy that infused her songs, and the devastating visions they often conveyed.

When Cynthia rang us the week before last with an update on the progress of new demos, we were glad to know it; glad to think of her getting her music together and to think of another chapter in the Dall Saga. It is stunning not merely because of the loss of that vision and that unheard record; more stunning and hurtful is to know that we will won’t be talking to her anymore. A light has gone from this world — and we hope you will join us in hoping that it has gone to place of greater peace.

Goodbye Cynthia — we’ll carry your love and joy and sorrow with us until we too are gone.

Worst Review Tactics

“It’s like [name of thing you love]only so much better!”

Has this ever happened to you? A friend or a “professional” reviewer of books, movies, records, etc. tries to sell you on some new thing by citing a comparison to something you love and then insulting that thing by telling you this new thing is aesthetically superior, the platonic ideal only glimpsed at by the thing you already love, exclaiming, “You should be so pumped to abandon that thing you already love in favor of this new thing that I am suddenly telling you is the more appropriate thing to admire!”

What’s funny about all this is that the reviewer/friend is really only trying to connect with you, to personalize their recommendation within a framework they know you will understand. But often, by going this route, they inadvertently demean your love for whatever the thing is, and what ends up happening (for me anyway) is the exact opposite response they were trying to get from me:

I end up hating this new thing.

The earliest example I can remember happened in college when I was on the phone with a dear friend when he asked (unfortunately):

“Have you heard this album Michigan by this guy Sufjan Stevens? It’s basically like Jim O’Rourke’s Eureka but the songwriting and arrangements are way better”

And on that day, at that moment, I gave birth to an infinite unquenchable hatred for Sufjan Stevens.

And why exactly did this happen? Because my discovery of Jim O’Rourke, (which had occurred a year or so before that conversation) was as close to a life-changing event as is possible with the consumption of art. Jim O’Rourke represents the nexus of so many wide-ranging creative ideas and disciplines, the perfect marriage of avant-garde and pop, melody and dissonance, improv and structure, (etc.) that I was obsessed with him to the point that he became a kind of index of creativity for me; I sought out every band or artist he had worked with; I read every interview with him published on the internet; I even kept a running Word doc where I copied and pasted the titles of any book or movie or album (or anything) that he mentioned liking.

 A brief list of a few of my favorite things I learned about via Jim O’Rourke:

John Fahey

Tony Conrad

Dusan Makavejev

Robert Downey Sr.

Derek Bailey

Faust

CAN

Whitehouse

Arthur Russell

Merzbow

Ray Russell

Bill Fay

Van Dyke Parks

Kevin Drumm

Masayuki Takayanagi

Otomo Yoshihde

Keiji Haino

Judy Sill

Curt Boetcher

Nic Roeg

Luc Ferrari

Robbie Basho

Robert Wyatt

Ivor Cutler

Smog

Scott Walker

And the list can go on and on. Basically this man is my hero. And my friend knew this when he called me; maybe he didn’t quite know the depth and breadth of my love, but he knew as much as I was able to communicate verbally. And he certainly knew that at the time Eureka was my favorite of Jim’s albums. (I’ve since decided that Insignificance is the superior of that era of Drag City albums, although I prefer his instrumental, electronic or improve records to the songwriting ones in general).

So what was my friend expecting me to do in response to his absurd claims? Drop all my built up love for the guy who has had the biggest influence on my creative life and suddenly take up with some dude whose name I couldn’t even pronounce yet? At his insistence I picked up Sufjan’s album and listened to a few songs, but all I was really doing was picking it apart, looking for all the ways it simply did not stack up to Eureka. Because of course, how could it stack up? That’s an impossible proposition considering the circumstance. I’m even willing to say that in a “blind taste test” situation it may be possible that 9 out of 10 listeners would prefer Sufbag Stevens to my Jim but I don’t care, I was and am so biased it’s not even worth pursuing.

So why am I thinking of all of this now?

Well the other day a dear, dear friend of mine wrote an article for NPR music where he outrageously overpraised an upcoming album by singer/composer Julia Holter—and it has been driving me nuts for the week or so since he posted it.

I should preface by saying that my friend’s taste in music is among the sharpest most well-rounded of anyone I know. I take his word on basically everything and there is a reason he has this NPR job: he is better informed about music than almost anyone and he can keenly articulate his thoughts. So when he writes about an album, I almost always give whatever it is a listen—and in most cases I wholeheartedly agree with him.

But in the first paragraph of this Julia Holter article, he pulls this shit on me, going straight for heart in the second sentence by referencing Scott Walker’s The Drift and Gaspar Noe’s film Enter The Void. My jaw dropped when he pulled those references; I may have spoken out loud to my wife, calling out to her in the other room, “Holy shit Lars just compared this girl to Enter the Void and Scott Walker!” Here’s Lars’s lede:

When the world is at the tip of anyone’s fingers, there’s little space for a true vanguard of sound. Think about it: When was the last time you heard or saw something entirely new? Experiences like Gaspar Noe’s film Enter the Void and Scott Walker’s album The Drift shook me to my core, and questioned my ideas of not only art, but also life itself. But trace the steps and you’ll find Ennio Morricone and Krzysztof Penderecki in Walker, or Kenneth Anger and 2001: A Space Odyssey in Noe.

One sentence further my heart was no longer the target; I felt that I had been kicked in the balls:

We’re a culture that recycles — no revelatory observation — but with Ekstasis, Julia Holter has created a radically new world from a crystalline Venn diagram of sound.

A “radically new world,” not recycled like Scott Walker or Gaspar Noe? So she’s more original than these mere recyclers? Well. Okay. I guess I’ll see about this.

And so with that attitude I approached the listening to Holter’s album, and I can’t shake the comparison, I can’t get past the bitterness, the sour taste in my mouth of having two of my favorite things evoked and then dismissed in favor of This Thing

I made it about halfway through Exstasis before I gave up. For all the grandstanding in the article, all I can hear is a younger Enya who is less interested in consonant melodies and who has probably seen Joanna Newsom live a few times–and even that description should sound cool to me! But it doesn’t. Lars’s overpraise acts as a numbing agent—sort of like when you eat pizza too soon out of the oven and it burns your tongue and you are doomed to taste less of the pizza for the rest of the meal, punished by the eagerness.

Am I crazy? Is this album really as good as Lars is claiming? I fear now I won’t ever be able to judge it accurately. All week I’ve been linking my friends to his article to try to gather responses from others to try to help me get a more holistic, less reactionary understanding of what is going on here. So maybe that’s why I was moved to write this article as well. Please tell me that I’m way off base and that Ekstasis is totally amazing or whatever. But if you harbor any love for Scott Walker or Gaspar Noé maybe just go ahead and avoid it.