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.
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.
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.
“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:
Robert Downey Sr.
Van Dyke Parks
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.
After a minute of deliberate, restrained acoustic guitar phrases accompanied with a few touches of piano, Jim O’Rourke’s The Visitor unfolds suddenly into a warm, rich, full-band arrangement, humming with sinewy slide guitars and clippety-clop percussion. For ten short, gorgeous seconds, O’Rourke declares that, after having made listeners wait for over a decade for a follow up to his brilliant instrumental suite Bad Timing, he won’t delay the magic any longer. After those ten seconds, the music returns to that solitary guitar, but just a minute later, the full band is back again, establishing a rhythm that will permeate the disc.
Space, delay, and restraint have long been some of O’Rourke’s sharpest tools: fans of Bad Timing can attest to the sublime payoff in the record’s final moments, and his work in Gastr del Sol with David Grubbs often challenged audiences’ patience, rewarding them in oblique moments of beauty too strange to name. Not that O’Rourke’s music is wholly strange–in fact, I can’t think of another musician who makes recordings sound so damn good. He has an almost preternatural gift for sonic spaces, whether as a solo artist or as a producer (and auxiliary member) of groups like Stereolab and The High Llamas (or more obscure acts like Wilco and Sonic Youth). In short, we expect that a Jim O’Rourke record (a “proper” one–not one of his (many, many) forays into experimental/improvisational collaboration) will sound really fucking good. In this sense, The Visitor isn’t particularly revelatory: it’s a great-sounding, expertly-played, 38-minute suite of music. It affirms what we know about O’Rourke, and leaves us wanting more.
For a record with such a unified sound and vision, The Visitor is also paradoxically all over the place. It’s one complete track, at least in digital form, and while there are clearly discrete passages, it’s nearly impossible to find where they might distinctly begin or end. Unlike its most obvious predecessor, Bad Timing, an album divided into four tracks, there are no seams showing here. Neither is there any reliance on electronic trickery or production shenanigans (which O’Rourke followers know he could pull off standing on his head). The Visitor is pure musicianship, full of resonant organs, lovely acoustic guitars, and a host of other instruments in the Americana vein that O’Rourke so clearly cherishes (it’s impossible not to hear nods to heroes of his like Van Dyke Parks and John Fahey here, of course). There are amazing moments, like at 11:25 or so when O’Rourke channels Dickey Betts for a killer micro-solo, or does a Brian May send-up at 20:40. There are woodwinds, there are banjos, there are instruments working together that I cannot identify. And it all sounds very, very good.
Undoubtedly, The Visitor will have its detractors. Unlike O’Rourke’s 1999 pop masterpiece Eureka, it is not an album of songs to know and love; neither is it remotely close to 2001’s more aggressive Insignificance. It is, as I’ve stated a few times now, a single suite of instrumental music, perhaps too pleasant for some or too weird for others. And while I’m very enthusiastic about it–I’ve listened to it about 25 times over the past three days–I admit that it also whets my appetite for a follow-up to O’Rourke’s more pop-oriented records. I’d love to hear the guy’s imperfect voice sing those mean, mean lyrics again. And I hope he won’t make us wait another eight years for one. Final verdict: buy The Visitor, listen to it, love it.
Jim O’Rourke’s The Visitor is available September 8th, 2009 from Drag City (who will mail it to you postage-paid for a mere $14 vinyl, $12 CD) or your favorite record store.
We’re pretty psyched about Jim O’Rourke‘s upcoming album, The Visitor, out on Drag City September 8th. O’Rourke hasn’t put out a “pop” record (as opposed to “experimental,” something of a false dichotomy really) since 2001’s Insignificance. Apparently, the new record is in the vein of one of our all-time favorite records, 1997’s Bad Timing. Supposedly the record will take the form of one long suite of music called “The Visitor,” and according to this interview from last year, “pretty much everyone is going to be disappointed.” He also says that the new record will be “pt. 4” after Bad Timing, Eureka, and Insignificance, so it’s hard to imagine being disappointed. Here’s the (we think) Nic Roeg connection (quick note: the three albums just cited are named after Nic Roeg films): in 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie plays a space alien stranded on Earth who records an album under the name The Visitor. Here’s the cover of The Visitor:
Here’s a Eureka-era audio interview with O’Rourke that you can download. He talks about his prolific powers, the influence of Godard and Roeg on his work, hierarchy and didacticism in music, the cheesy sax solo on “Eureka” (“Of course it’s stupid!”), and why listening to music is a process of education. Good stuff. Or, if you want music, not words, here’s the sorta kinda rarity, “Never Again,” from the Chicago 2018 comp. Also good stuff.
21. Duane Allman
Although he only played on the first two Allman Brothers albums (“only” does not seem an appropriate modifier here, given how goddamn great those albums are), Duane Allman left behind an enormous legacy in rock and soul music, appearing on singles by King Curtis, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, along with many others. He also dueled with Eric Clapton on “Layla” (my theory: everything awesome on that track has to do with Allman) and whatever else is on that Derek and the Dominoes album. Allman’s early death by motorcycle accident may have cemented a romantic legacy, but my gut feeling is that he would have been more Neil Young (consistent and relevant) and less fat Elvis (uhmmm…you get the idea) had he had time to produce more music.
22. Derek Bailey
Bailey’s avant garde approach to acoustic (and, to a lesser extent, electric) guitar stands out as one of the most challenging and wholly original styles on this list. Bailey is certainly a Not For Everyone type of guitarist: on first listen his music may sound like a stuttering and spewing mess, a series of discontinuous notes that aggravates the ear and angers the blood. But Bailey’s style–besides influencing everyone from Sonic Youth to Fred Frith to Keiji Haino–manages to eschew all the wankery inherent in “free jazz,” replacing it with an odd mix of humor and soul.
Some late period grace:
23. Jim O’Rourke
Jim O’Rourke is responsible for three of my all-time-favorite-albums: Bad Timing, Eureka, and, along with cohort David Grubbs under the Gastr del Sol moniker, 1996’s Upgrade & Afterlife (an album that I rank along with Pet Sounds, Loveless, and Fear of Music as a slice of sonic perfection). Mr. O’Rourke has produced and mixed more worthy albums than I have space here to mention (although it’s worth pointing out that he is often credited as “saving” Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (see: documentary film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart)), and he was even asked to join Sonic Youth as a fifth member. He’s also done numerous soundtracks, including work with Biblioklept favorite Werner Herzog. Apparently Mr. O’Rourke has quit making albums and has decided to work on making movies instead. Note to Jim: please please please do another solo album–Loose Fur’s Born Again in the USA was good but not great, and we know you have more songs to share! But it seems that I forgot to mention his guitar playing: this is getting long, so suffice to say, he’s better than Slash–a lot better.
O’Rourke plays “The Workplace” (from the EP Halfway to a Threeway) live:
24. David Pajo
David Pajo was in Slint. He also played guitar for Tortoise on the sublime Millions Now Living Will Never Die album. He’s also one of Will Oldham’s finest partners, adding the guitars for a number of Oldham/Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy albums, including ‘klept fave Ease Down the Road. I could end there, but Pajo is also the mastermind behind Aerial M and Papa M, two bands responsible for some of the finest “post-rock” this side of the nineties. When Pajo joined Billy Corgan’s ill-fated “comeback” band Zwan (along with Matt Sweeney, of all people), I actually took the time to listen (it wasn’t half bad, really). One of those guys who makes everything he touches a little bit better.
Cool video for “Krusty” from Pajo’s 2001 album, Whatever, Mortal. “Krusty” sounds more like it should come from Pajo’s finest work, ’99’s Live from a Shark Cage–
25. Dick Dale
Dick Dale, surf-rock king, blah blah blah. Dick Dale invented the genre from scratch it seems, providing a template not only for a myriad of copycats from the Ventures to Man or Astroman?, but also some of the basis for flashy heavy metal soloing. And while I’m not a big fan of the genre of “surf rock” anymore (thanks in large part to the mid-nineties overkill of bands like Man or Astroman?), I have to respect Dick Dale’s panache, his verve, and his sheer virtuoso talent on his instrument. Oh, and he’s better than Slash.
“Misirlou” (aka the soundtrack to that ass-rape scene from Pulp Fiction)