BEST OF 2015: 25. Jim O’Rourke ‘Simple Songs’

Every so often, Jim O’Rourke releases what one might call a conventional album. With ninety-six long players credited to him on Discogs and numerous EPs besides, prolific is an adjective that seems especially well suited to this American artist and producer. He is a musician who has a relatively small but devoted following, splitting opinion with his very specific approaches to sound. When he produced Beth Orton’s 2006 album ‘Comfort Of Strangers, a record which is criminally overlooked, a sizeable stash of opprobrium was directed his way because of what some took to be muddy and reserved sound. A participant in the loudness wars he was not. A master of many sounds, his occasional straight up rock records tend to attract the most adoration and ‘Simple Songs’ makes it obvious why.

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Right from the off, multi-tracked vocals, descending piano lines which will be naggingly familiar to fans of The Divine Comedy – though pure coincidence, I’m sure – and a rich, pulsing rhythm section ensure that ‘Friends With Benefits’ is one hell of a way to ensure you get the audience’s attention. These are highly crafted, deliciously enthralling pieces of music, managing to seem simultaneously familiar and yet fresh. While it’s hard to believe that some of the points of reference could possibly be influences for him, it’s nevertheless quite fun to chalk them up.

That Weekend’ initially sounds uncannily like Field Music, all angular guitars and enigmatic pauses, a gorgeously delicate chorus discretely emerging. ‘Hotel Blue’ in turn evokes a sense of prime downbeat introspective Weller. When he suddenly rears up, it’s a stirring moment which cuts right through. Whether intentional or not, the historical markers are all over ‘Simple Songs’ and it really does feel like a concerted, straight-laced attempt at a classic pop-rock album. Despite his many and varied, not entirely unchallenging tonal experiments and jazz improvisations that he releases all year round – often far better than you might expect based on how they are talked about  – O’Rourke does this sort of thing remarkably well. His voice is a little lived in and imbued with emotional resonance. The layers to these songs are a delight and it is an album to inhabit wholeheartedly.

The digital version sounds odd to these ears, a little thin and muted in a way that can’t be solved by just turning it up. It’s hard to get away from the sense that it might be a deliberate act on the part of someone known to be unkeen on releasing his music as lots of zeros and ones. Vinyl is by far the way to go on this one but, frustratingly, Drag City’s pressing standards have dropped off massively of late and it’s not all that easy getting hold of a quiet copy, even though the mastering brings these songs to life. There is a real depth and warmth to this pressing which serves to live up to all of the trite cliches that get written about the format in any of the three thousand and seventy two articles about the vinyl revival published to date. As a result, it’s not a record to consume in dribs and drabs but as a complete body of work.

The sweeping ‘End Of The Road’ comes near the end of the record, gradually building into something that’s actually quite emotionally exhausting. In a good way. It ushers in ‘All Your Love’, a contrary song which jovially renounces the subject’s love before veering off into three minutes of false endings and dramatic crescendos. ‘Simple Songs’ is idiosyncratic and riveting listening. Like an imperfect but utterly remarkable novel, it pulls you in and leaves you thinking about it for days afterwards.

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