Jim O’Rourke: indie’s unsung perpetual polymath

You might not have heard of him, but the leftfield guitarist has spent over 20 years influencing – and evading – the mainstream, working with Sonic Youth to Werner Herzog

As musical polymaths go, Jim O’Rourke makes Damon Albarn look slack. Straddling the indie and experimental scenes like a cardigan-clad colossus, O’Rourke has played guitar with Sonic Youth, collaborated with avant garde titans Derek Bailey and Merzbow, produced a Grammy award-winning Wilco album, improvised a film score for Werner Herzog, had his own short films shown at the Whitney Biennial and, as music consultant for School Of Rock, taught a bunch of child actors how to shred like AC/DC.

Since leaving Chicago post-rockers Gastr Del Sol in 1998, he’s explored American primitivist guitar (Bad Timing), glitchy electronica (I’m Happy And I’m Singing And A 1,2,3,4) and playfully zonked improv (as one-third of Fenn O’Berg), each new project seemingly intended to confound fans of the previous one. He even found time to join Sonic Youth for four years, while resisting an easy payday by turning down the opportunity to produce A-ha and the Rolling Stones.

However, it’s the pair of singer-songwriter albums that O’Rourke made either side of the millennium for which he is most admired. Eureka and Insignificance, both named after Nicolas Roeg films, proved that this avowed experimentalist could also craft sumptuous pop songs in the classic tradition of Burt Bacharach and Harry Nilsson, which he served up with a side-order of wry misanthropy. Morrissey would be proud of Memory Lame’s litany of acerbic put-downs (“Listening to you reminds me of a motor’s endless drone/ And how the deaf are so damn lucky”) while the deceptively breezy Get A Room is written from the point of view of a dying man too weak to rouse his sleeping lover for a final goodbye.

O’Rourke’s new one belatedly picks up where Insignificance left off. Simple Songs is even comelier than its predecessors, invoking the arch, burnished AOR of Steely Dan and the rakish twinkle of Leonard Cohen. “This hand of mine has a mind of its own,” begins one song, pervily. “Never seen a curve like that,” he remarks elsewhere, while ostensibly complimenting a woman on the architectural majesty of her new roof.

Living in Tokyo for the past 10 years, away from the American underground scene that he grew to resent, O’Rourke’s cynical worldview seems to have mellowed, although there’s still room, on the track Half Life Crisis, for a dig at over-the-hill hipsters who refuse to admit the jig is up (“You can tell from your face/ That you’re a charity case”). Having made his point with typical elegance and economy, you suspect that O’Rourke will be content to retreat once again to his experimental scores and improv jams. A Rolling Stones hook-up remains unlikely.

Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs is out on Monday 18 May on Drag City


Sam Richards

The GuardianTramp

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