precede this piece with two disclaimers. One, I am extremely jealous of Jim O’Rourke. I really am. Two, like Jim O’Rourke, I hold a degree in music composition. I am fully aware these may very well cloud my judgment in evaluating the prodigious output of one Jim O’Rourke. But so it goes.]
Jim O’Rourke is perhaps contemporary popular music’s ultimate auteur. Prolific beyond all comprehension, he has an enormous and prodigious resume, one that makes Stephen King look like Kraftwerk by comparison.
And in terms of sheer ubiquity, O’Rourke makes Elvis Costello look like Howard Hughes in the long-fingernails stage. Whether it’s so-called faux “roots music” (John Fahey), 80’s college rock (Sonic Youth), 90’s college rock (Stereolab), Millennial college rock (Wilco), Krautrock (Faust), Texas psychedelia (Red Krayola), classical minimalism (Tony Conrad), or post rock (Tortoise), Jim O’Rourke has played/produced/mixed with just about every hero-type you can name from every genre you can imagine. With his most recent work mixing Wilco’s much-heralded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the O’Rourke imprint is inescapable.
And his solo discography is only slightly less cumbersome, and equally varied and extensive. Beginning his post-academic career pitched somewhere between Derek Bailey’s guitar improvisations and the perpetual music of LaMonte Young’s Dream Syndicate, O’Rourke spent his formative years developing solidly intellectual, challenging avant-garde music grounded firmly in electric textures. By the mid-nineties, O’Rourke had seemingly completed his run of self-perpetuating music with Happy Days, an album of music that droned on all by itself. With 1998’s Bad Timing, he began to transition into more traditionally tonal, even melodic, music, fusing John Fahey’s folk guitar textures into the fold, before blasting into pop music full on with Eureka and Insignificance.
But enough with the AMG bio, here’s the rub: with the occasional exception, very little of this music is any good. And what little is worth the listener’s time is nearly always compromised by the specter of O’Rourke himself.
Is he talented? Sure. Brilliant? Maybe. But this isn’t an issue of misplaced genius throwing shit at a wall until it sticks, (like, say, comedian Mike Myers), when one luminous success is worth a thousand embarrassing mistakes. No, in 95% of O’Rourke’s endeavors, those in which he’s in charge, he throws and throws.
And I feel bad for that wall. Is it hyperbole to say so? No question, but consider this: not a single one of the records he recorded with Faust, Fahey, or the Red Krayola—massive figures in the history of underground contemporary music—even qualifies as listenable, much less among their best. For instance, is his recent work with Sonic Youth as their “fifth member” really groundbreaking? Only the blindest of fans would think so. Swooping in during the obvious decline of these aforementioned artists’ career, one is left with the image of O’Rourke pecking away at the remains of decaying genius, often adding nothing more than layer-upon-layer of unlistenable sheets of noise to the proceeding. No wonder the since-departed Fahey defied doctor’s orders and kept eating buckets of greasy popcorn.
I must confess at this point of yet another disclaimer: I met this “titan” of a man at a party when I was in college in 1995 or so while he was on tour with Gastro Del Sol and Tortoise. Though not exactly a fan, I was fairly excited about the possibility of meeting him, given his emerging Post Rock God status at the time.
Those attending the party were instead treated to an insufferable, boorish know-it-all who commandeered the stereo and wouldn’t shut the fuck up. In effect, Jim O’Rourke was everything you would expect him to be and pray to God he wasn’t.
If you think I’m being unfair—judging a record by its gatefold sleeve as it were—remember that I didn’t particularly care for his music beforehand. The broad avant-garde experimental scene to which he belonged for several years, the likes of which included Baileyphile Henry Kaiser, Lorren Mazzacane Connors, Merzbow and downtowners like John Zorn, has always thrived on a healthy dose of intellectual masturbation. Even the best, most engaging of these records (take the first side of Kaiser’s It’s A Wonderful Life or Naked City’s magnum opus, The Grand Guignol) sound as if they sprang from the minds of bitter, bitter white men, cathartically expelling their years as unappreciated high school outcasts. It took someone like Derek Bailey himself, who only arrived at his brand of difficult, abrasive music in middle age after years of exploring the jazz idiom (before he found it unsatisfactory), to give this music much in the way of heart. Such music was not coincidentally discovered and adopted in the midst of studying music in college, but thoroughly worked through, broken down, recreated, and, dare I say, felt.
Despite having left the invention of his music to others, O’Rourke has worked hard to vary his shtick, splicing and combining styles with great command and understanding, a la Bad Timing. But his technique has never been in question.
Instead, his abilities scream to be matched with something that simply comes from the guy’s heart. As a well-documented lover of Pop, the Beach Boys variety, O’Rourke clearly knows what “heart” is. So it was only a matter of time before O’Rourke brought his brand of heady product to pop music.
But for all we learned in the second half of the 20th Century about form, context and content, epitomized most clearly by the deconstructionist postmodernism of the 80’s and 90’s, after all the pre-millennial tension was relieved like an overdue whizz, we discovered something about pop music that Gerry and the Pacemakers could have told us in 1959: pop music ain’t that complicated, at least not aesthetically. It speaks and will always speak a simple teenage truth, a truth of naïve sincerity and yearning.
Jim O’Rourke: he doesn’t get that. He can’t. We might find ourselves listening to Eureka’s “Women of the World” with it’s refrain of “Women of the world/Take over/’Cause if you don’t/the world will come to an end.” But coming out of his mouth, Ivor Cutler’s words seems self-servingly disingenuous, as if to tell us, “Jim O’Rourke: Feminist.” Or perhaps his clever play about possibly being gay on Insignificance, cribbed from Randy Newman’s brilliant “Untrustworthy Narrator” device, in which you never know whether the guy is telling the truth.
But when used by O’Rourke, all you can think about is what an impossible jerk O’Rourke must be. Aside from the questions about whether it’s just obnoxious to feign homosexuality (like, is it more PC than pretending to be black?), when you compare his use of it to Newman’s characters, like the poor racist slob in “Marie,” or the huckster slave-trader in “Sail Away,” you realize that the joke isn’t on him or his character. It’s on us. Well, Jim, you sure got us there.
I’m sure O’Rourke would love the Newman comparison; it was probably what he intended all along, as he diagrammed and charted the strategic deployment of bits from his dog-eared copy of The Encyclopedia of Great Pop Moments. And in this business, twelve hundred words of bile are just as good as adulatory praise, I suppose. Still, for my money, pop music is something you’re supposed to believe in, something that leaves the adult at the office. I don’t need Bono. But his ham-handed chest beating, his Outpourings of Emotion at their cynical worst sure say a lot more about my inner-teenager than 72 records of O’Rourke’s finest, most of which, I’ll just pour out, thanks.
By: Matthew Weiner
Published on: 2002-08-19