Experiments in Normalcy
When Jim O’Rourke calls the final cut on Mats Gustafsson’s Parrot Fish Eye, “Again (With a Lot of Guitar?),” a joke, he doesn’t mean it as an insult to the Swedish saxophonist. O’Rourke, who’s known best for his guitar work but chose to play accordion on most of Gustafsson’s record, says the title is a goof on himself–or, more precisely, on what listeners and even fellow open-minded musicians have come to expect from him. “Who gives a fuck about how good I can play guitar? I want to play something I’ve never played before,” he says. “Who cares what instrument I use? I’m improvising.”
If one thing has remained constant over O’Rourke’s wide-ranging musical career, it’s his knack for defying expectations–as a working-class kid who studied composition at DePaul and as an internationally known avant-garde composer, musician, and producer who’s as likely to praise Alanis Morissette as Canadian composer John Oswald (and in the same conversation to boot). Just this year, in addition to helping run the eclectic reissues label Dexter’s Cigar and making two albums of his own, he’s produced records for mope rockers Smog, fingerpicking experimentalist John Fahey, and art rockers U.S. Maple; remixed tunes for Japanese noise legend Merzbow, abstract German electronicists Microstoria, and vanguard popsters the Sea and Cake; and performed with country-tinged chanteuse Edith Frost, pop classicists Plush, and noisy Swiss improvisers Voice Crack.
Maybe most surprising, this summer O’Rourke quit the popular and critically acclaimed Gastr del Sol, the guitar-based avant-rock band through which many of his current fans and clients came to know him. It seems he was starting to feel a little one-dimensional.
“When you’re presenting yourself as someone trying to make ‘creative music,’ I think you have an obligation to the audience to trip yourself all the time,” he says. “I’ve been shocked by how many people don’t do it. I do it by making myself uncomfortable, and for that reason I should have quit Gastr a year ago. It became too much of a full-time thing. It’s not that I get bored, but I don’t believe in doing something over and over again. It’s something that really makes me feel sick.”
There’s obviously a bit of the contrarian in O’Rourke: his next major project is an album of covers of “songs that are generally not considered to be good songs,” on which he’ll make us see the light on such all-time losers as Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is.” At 28, that tendency has developed into a healthy habit of questioning his own music. “When I was in school I worshiped people like Stockhausen and La Monte Young,” he says. “That was before I knew better. Those guys are scum. They all think they’re better than everyone else.”
O’Rourke’s own early compositions–generally humorless, highly conceptual affairs–were heavily influenced by the minimalists, and his reevaluation of them is evident in his recent music. “I’ve been writing minimalist since high school, but it wasn’t until Happy Days that I wasn’t just aping somebody else,” he says. On that lengthy, inventive piece, released earlier this year by Fahey’s Revenant label, O’Rourke performs Fahey-style finger gymnastics across a beautiful droning minimalist soundscape. But the brand-new Bad Timing (Drag City) is an even bigger breakthrough, with the same trancey, almost pretty fingerpicking woven through some truly unusual arrangements. Some are downright sunny, while others abruptly or even mischievously shift moods. On “Happy Trails,” for instance, O’Rourke’s delicate acoustic fretwork is stopped dead in its tracks by a horn-heavy marchlike passage that recalls the work of one of O’Rourke’s idols, Van Dyke Parks.
“Bad Timing’s as close as I’ve ever gotten to just making a record of music, as opposed to doing things for specific conceptual reasons,” O’Rourke says. “It’s also the first time I wrote music for personal reasons. You know, the typical kind of excuse people come up with for making music to get over something.” He won’t say what he’s getting over, just that “the music was written during a period when things weren’t very good,” but the exquisite tension between the somber guitar playing and the markedly cheery arrangements (finished “when things had gotten a lot better”) suggests that maybe real life and serious music aren’t so incompatible after all.
Blues and jazz cruises frequently lumber up and down the Chicago shoreline nowadays, but as far as I know this is the first-ever indie-rock Love Boat: on Saturday from 7 to 11 PM you can check out five more-or-less-local combos, the Aluminum Group, the Handsome Family, Ashtray Boy, Velour Motel, and the Pulsars, as the lake laps at the hull of the Jamaica. It’s $26; free buffet, cash bar. Call 773-489-1656 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jim O’Rourke photo by Brad Miller.