Jim O’Rourke Simple Songs

[Drag City; 2015]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: soft rock, orchestral pop
Others: Van Dyke Parks, Świetliki i Linda, Bill Callahan, Lambchop

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. Having worked so prolifically across noise, jazz, and experimental electronic music over the past decade, surely the 14 years between Simple Songs and Insignificance (his last “pop” installment to feature lyrics) is worth dwelling on. Might there be a correlation in the amount of time between these stylistically divergent releases and the level of energy involved in putting them together?

The more I contemplated this, the more I thought about how these styles might be valued differently by O’Rourke and how Simple Songs might fit into that context. Indeed, his latest edition for Drag City is an aesthetic continuation of where he left off with Eureka and, to some extent, Insignificance; it’s an album of wonderfully crafted soft-rock and orchestral pop music that allows for his contributions in jazz, experimental rock, and even acoustic noise to make its presence known without veering too far from the middle of the road.

But to compare this approach with two other releases this year, the delightful cacophony of Steamroom 17 or the metallic sprawl of Behold, is almost impossible; these albums are non-linear improvisations that provoke unpredictable emotional responses based on the chance nature of the music. If it weren’t for the lyrics on Simple Songs (which expands on his enthusiasm for handling “rude, rude subjects”), the music in his Steamroom series would surely be deemed his more adventurous outings. And yet, the frequency of these so-called “experimental” Steamroom records actually alludes to a sense of comfort; most of the time, O’Rourke doesn’t work with the restrictions and constraints that a pop album might demand, and that lies at the root of his overwhelming output.

On Simple Songs, he points out the importance of diversifying, of being adventurous and taking on new challenges by smirking at the man who “hasn’t moved an inch in a year.” In this respect, the pop installations aren’t as out of place as they seem — instead, they mark a shift in the way that O’Rourke is working and they keep him operating across alternate stylistic spheres. By virtue of their concepts, they also allow him to communicate with his audience on a level that is arguably more direct, accessible, and that consequently comprises a larger number of people — not that this has ever mattered to O’Rourke in the past.

But as someone who holds And that’s the Story of Jazz…, Upgrade and Afterlife, and Happy Days above almost anything else O’Rourke has ever worked on, I found myself asking why Simple Songs was so appealing to me. If context had everything to do with approaching the album in the first place — even with the understanding that it would be a lot different from the records that I personally favored — why did Simple Songs immediately resonate with me?

Context alone is never enough to make an album appealing on its own terms, especially when it’s just enough to draw you in. It’s often the emotional connections you forge with the music that makes it feel vital. For that reason, Simple Songs felt like a guilty pleasure of sorts because of how straight-faced and, well, digestible it is. My interest in O’Rourke’s work stems from both his versatility and his ability to turn his hand to any number of styles while managing to leave a distinctive mark, yet Simple Songs initially had me looking over my shoulder to remind myself of everything else he had done before in order to keep me listening. Needless to say, that felt a little fucked up.

But there was something about these song structures, the fragments bracketing particular segments that combated the “turn it off, it’s dad rock” reflex. There are moments of intense repetition (“That Weekend”), of peculiar acoustic buildup (“End of the Road”), and of spectacularly off-kilter orchestral compositions (“Hotel Blue”) that manage to sit so well within the mix that they are subtly tucked away behind the album’s overriding rock aesthetic. They certainly don’t compare to the all-out obscurity of something like Electric Dress, but they continually emerge from these songs in ways that feel like they need uncovering, as notes or clues to be excavated within a traditional context.

By referring to the songs as “simple,” the title can also be interpreted in different ways; that they are open or honest, or that they are free of the complexities of almost every other recent O’Rourke release. The former complements the gentle, sincere qualities of a piece like “End of the Road,” with its softly spoken verse and climatic buildup; “Could you look me in the eye/ Although you might not really comprehend/ It’s not ‘cause I didn’t try,” our singer persists. His voice is a pungent purr throughout, even on the soft-rock flurry of “Last Year,” which assumes a feeling of integrity because of how O’Rourke addresses the importance of productivity and personal progression while marking his own flaws as an “absentee in the public domain.” But he has his back to the camera on the album cover, and my bet is that he’s smiling between drags on his cigarette. Perhaps it’s because of those gorgeous little hints of abstraction that remain tucked beneath the surface, unmistakably making this an O’Rourke project. The album sounds great, because it allows for that feeling of open sincerity to run throughout each composition, and whatever the intention, it unfolds as a remarkably optimistic statement.

I started out by asking myself questions concerning the value of the music O’Rourke is making available, based on the amount of time between each release, how his experimental recordings might drop a matter of weeks (or even days) apart, while there are often years between his pop albums. But ultimately, none of that matters. It’s difficult keeping track of everything O’Rourke has a hand in, and Simple Songs works as an antidote for clutching at straws by adding a layer of depth to an otherwise indiscernible character; it offers insight into the workings of a prodigious mind, and it comes off sounding triumphant. “I won’t leave you shortchanged,” O’Rourke promises on the opening track. “This one’s on me” — and I believe every word of it.

Links: Jim O'Rourke - Drag City

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