Essential New Music: Jim O’Rourke’s “Hands That Bind (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)”

Jim O’Rourke’s passion for film has informed his music from the start. Cinematic notions of pacing and structure influence his compositional approach as much as the work of any musician you can name. He’s titled albums after movies and tunes after movie characters, and he’s been contributing to soundtracks since the 1990s. But until now, O’Rourke has not released an LP that bears the legend “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.” One suspects that a couple circumstances had not converged; either the music he made for other films didn’t seem right for a record or the filmmakers did not request that a soundtrack album be released.

Hands That Bind is the second feature by Canadian director Kyle Armstrong. As of now, it hasn’t been widely released, but it’s making the festival rounds, so those who are curious how O’Rourke’s music works within the film may have to guess from the trailer or the short video made specifically to accompany the album’s release, at least for the time being. Mind you, if things go south in the current film-industry face-off, we might all be scrambling in a few years to see the final movies made with human beings before the suits opt to work with AI scabs instead, and Hands That Bind might get screened in “Last Days Of Human Hollywood” college classes.

But we digress. Suffice to say that it’s easier to hear the Hands That Bind soundtrack than it is to see the movie, and O’Rourke’s music is up to the task of holding a listener’s attention. It’s actually a strong introduction for O’Rourke newbies, since it connects certain of his interests in a fairly accessible package. It renews his engagement with Americana, but instead of a tuneful audio travelogue like 1997’s Bad Timing, it combines big-sky and dark-night signifiers into a series of atmospheric pieces that evoke a haunted-prairie vibe. To accomplish this, O’Rourke has mixed manipulated environmental sounds with subliminal strings, receding accordions and starkly framed instrumental gestures. Anyone yearning for the return of Jim O’Rourke, guitarist, will have to keep waiting; the soundtrack’s most prominent instruments are double bass, brushed cymbals and upright piano, although plenty of other sounds drift in and out of the mix.

Beginning with “Go Spend Some Time With Your Kids” and finishing with “One Way Or Another I’m Gone,” the titles imply a story arc of trouble, conflict and termination. And because this is a record, you can stop at any point along the way and luxuriate in each piece’s world of sound, since each is strong enough to trigger mental movies of its own.

—Bill Meyer