February 21, 2002

Dr. O'Rourke and Mr. Hyde

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Jim O’Rourke breaks every mold of the “traditional” musician. Starting out as an electro-acoustic experimentalist, O’Rourke later fronted seminal Chicagoans Gastr del Sol, which alternated between innovative pop and out-there musical meanderings. But never has the contrast between O’Rourke’s two sides been more apparent than in his pair of recent releases.

Insignificance is the follow-up to 1999’s Eureka, O’Rourke’s first album of straight pop tunes as a solo artist. Whereas Eureka focused on straightforward, well-orchestrated pop, his latest effort has a more organic feel. This is not to say that the tight arrangements of Eureka and Gastr del Sol have disappeared altogether; each track on Insignificance is a dense web of instruments.

But rockers like “Therefore, I Am” and the upbeat “All Downhill From Here” add a new dimension to his sound. The former is driven along by Wilco guitarist Jeff Tweedy’s muscular riffing, forming a somewhat bluesy groove that almost seems out of place behind O’Rourke’s deadpan vocals. It’s also marked by O’Rourke’s typically biting lyrics, including the gem, “I’ve traveled around the world/ I’ve seen so many things/ why am I talking to you?”

Elsewhere, O’Rourke gets even more vicious, as on the standout “Memory Lame,” in which flawless pop arrangements almost obscure the caustic words. O’Rourke snarls, “Listening to you/ reminds me of a motor’s endless drone/ and how the deaf are so damn lucky.”

Other songs show O’Rourke in more of a laidback, contemplative mood. The closing cut, “Life Goes Off,” features an airy, twangy guitar that gives the song a rambling country feel that is perfectly suited to the warm vocals.

The entire album sounds like it was laid down in a few easygoing jam sessions, but the band is remarkably tight considering their varied backgrounds (O’Rourke is backed by a who’s who of Chicago jazz and indie-rock wizards). Not one of these 40 minutes is wasted, as the album is packed with complex interplay, beautiful melodies, and of course O’Rourke’s always sharp wit. Overall, not a complaint to be made against it.

O’Rourke’s other recent project consists of three lengthy songs of highly abstract electronic music. A document of a live laptop performance, this is a unique combination of premeditation and improv.

The first track, “I’m Happy,” is the closest to traditional IDM. Consisting of cut-up synth tones, the song constantly shifts moods. After starting with a disturbing carnival melody, it segues into a more minimal section, with synths ringing like transmissions from a breaking radio tower.

“I’m Singing” is the best track here, using a moody bassline to create a dark, claustrophobic atmosphere. This piece is representative of the entire album in that it’s all about texture, evoking feelings from the simplest of noises. Finally, the 20-minute closer “And a 1,2,3,4” takes the album in a more ambient direction.

Together, these two albums provide a glimpse of Jim O’Rourke from two of his more prominent sides: the gloating but brilliant pop tunesmith, and the brooding experimental musician. Both sides of his bizarre personality are compelling, and more importantly, both sides are capable of turning out amazing music.

Archived article by Ed Howard