Jim O’Rourke can resemble a complicated musical chameleon. Since the late 80s, he has blended a patchwork career in the avant-garde with explorations into cinema, post-, folk- and alt-rock, and membership with acoustic-chamber heroes Gastr del Sol and “punk” purveyors Sonic Youth. In his recent years, as he’s retired to Japan, he’s been more off than on.
But he’s always been clear about his forays into POP. It’s candy. Or, more specifically, it’s an exercise purely of the simple, sensory variety. There is sometimes some cerebral urgency to it; you can here the way he toys with idol John Fahey’s tenets of rhythm and gradual expansion and repetition, like a sponge slowly growing in water with each passing tide, on “Women of the World,” off the excellent Eureka. But, more often than not, he is dressing the windows or, if cover art is any indication, inviting us to watch him pleasure himself.
On Simple Songs, his first POP outing in a decade, available now on Drag City, he wastes little time reminding us of our lot in life as consumers of POP music. Here, for your consideration, are the opening lyrics to the LP’s very first song, the appropriately titled “Friends With Benefits:”
Nice to see you once again
Been a long time, my friend
Since you crossed my mind at all
There’s no need to beat about
Not hard to figure out
This ain’t at all a social call
I hate to get Freudian but it sounds like, in other words, Jimmy O’s here to fuck. It’s too bad that, from the sounds of much of the disc, he’s doing it with a limp dick.
If this were anyone other than indie rock figurehead Jim O’Rourke, Simple Songs would be a passable, if sometimes negatively fey, pop record, with a couple memorable moments. It’s nothing to write home about but, depending on where it fell in the career, not a failure. But, given that this comes after years of silence and, further still, after epic releases like Eureka and Insignificance, this is a sad turn of events. Christ, this doesn’t even hold up to the quite good, between-releases affair Halfway To A Threeway or the outings as Loose Fur.
The thing is mostly a mish-mash of 70’s references. “Half-Life Crisis” is watered-down “Rocket Man”-era Elton John, followed (bad sequencing) by the droll “Hotel Blue,” which begins by aiming for low key Cat Stevens (ditto “These Hands”) and ends hitting the cod-piece of Joe Cocker, accompanied, oddly enough, by strings. “Last Year” hints at prog leanings that go nowhere; only the record-closing “All Your Love” – a really, oddly well-done piece – has the appropriate grain and scale.
But it’s just too little, too late.
I’m not one to cite press activity, as it has little relevance to the recorded product, but Drag City did note that O’Rourke played many/most of the instruments on the new record himself. That’s worth noting, both because it’s impressive and it’s an explanation of why the performances felt a little gray. He’s a studio master, for sure, but there’s no way a man can handle a POP masterpiece from string to drumhead to dial and nail down every part every vocal line, too. Even Bacharach had help.
So, it’s with sadness that I report the new O’Rourke record’s a dud. Pitchfork will tell you otherwise, and spend three-quarters of its review talking about what a mastermind and genius he was in the 90s, avoiding the obvious questions about content. Fact is: Simple Songs’ simple truth? It could’ve used a better cook in the kitchen. Sorry, Jimmy.