Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
The title seems clear enough, but little in Jim O’Rourke’s extensive catalog can be taken at face value. The guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/producer/auteur is a true renaissance man. He’s best known for his avant-garde work as a collaborator, solo act and member of acts such as Gastr del Sol, Smog, and most famously, Sonic Youth. But O’Rourke has also delved into singer-songwriter waters when the spirit strikes, which it does about once a decade.
Simple Songs comes almost 10 years after his previous set of more commercially oriented tunes. Of course, in O’Rourke’s world, the word “commercial” is a relative term. As you can imagine, his compositions are not traditional in either their musical or lyrical approach. In that sense, the album’s name seems satirical since none of the dozens of projects O’Rourke has been involved in for the past 25 years can be described as “simple.”
These eight tracks weave and bob their way through what can best be described as prog-pop. Strings and horns push them even further afield as his Japanese backing musicians shift from jazz to folk and rock support. O’Rourke sings like a slightly distracted Cat Stevens and some of his tunes aren’t that far removed from Stevens’ later albums that were pushing his folk/rock boundaries into more progressive and experimental areas. There’s also some musical connection to Peter Gabriel in his earlier solo years. Even if this is as pop-minded as O’Rourke gets, it still displays many of his progressive tendencies such as repeating “just let me come over” 16 times in under 3 ½ minutes of “That Weekend.” Those looking for catchy sing-a-long choruses and linear song construction are in the wrong place.
The album was five years in the making, and it sounds like it. These pieces are challenging, ambitious, unconventional and quirky, even if they vaguely slot into a standard instrumentation. That’s especially true of the closing six minute “All Your Love.” It changes tempos and direction throughout its epic, widescreen performance, driven to its finish line with crashing drums, dynamic orchestration and layered guitars.
Neither easy listening or abrasive, Simple Songs is the sound of O’Rourke spraying his idiosyncratic fairy dust over a genre he clearly appreciates, albeit through the lenses of his own somewhat eccentric vision. Once you get into his groove though, it’s easy to appreciate the artist’s tenacity and often volatile vision. Those looking for something diverse, unpredictable and inspirational in the singer-songwriter genre have come to the right place.