Essential New Music: Jim O’Rourke’s “Simple Songs”


It’s not as if Jim O’Rourke made easily digestible vocal records when he was part of the indie-avant pop milieu before 2005. Like his most spare, intimate and beautifully innate instrumental albums (e.g., 2001’s deceptively titled I’m Happy, And I’m Singing, And A 1,2,3,4), O’Rourke’s lyric-filled moments—such as 1999’s Eureka and 2001’s Insignificance—pulled you toward them in confidence, no matter how bitterly misanthropic they may have been. Then there was his tiny, windy voice; in comparison to the plush instrumentation, it too welcomed you onto its bed of (thorny) roses. Leaving the convention of Sonic Youth and indie-everything, oddly enough, hasn’t changed his vocal moods, his lyrical love of the sardonic, unreliable narrator (a favorite literary motif of his and They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell) or his sonic range/palette.

Like Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy played by Martin Denny’s orchestra (remember, O’Rourke did record a tribute to Burt Bacharach for the Japanese-only market) at its quietest—then quieter—Simple Songs is that, and then hardly that. So, gently finicky, flighty songs such as “Friends With Benefits” and “Half Life Crisis” sarcastically veer from their titles (he has no friends) with just enough breath to get through the humbly (hummable) memorable verses. “Hotel Blue” is like dark-chocolate ice cream—soft, bittersweet, cold. Every instrument on Simple Songs (all him, as with The Visitor, his gorgeously wordless free-ballad album) sounds as if its player taped cotton balls on his fingertips, and the whole thing is ghoulishly gorgeous in the most comfortably comfortable way. That’s so O’Rourke.

—A.D. Amorosi