Jim O'Rourke: Simple Songs

Chris Coulter
22nd May 2015

Much has been made of Jim O’Rourke’s penchant for dipping his fingers into every available musical pie. Indeed his prolific collaborative work, both on the production side of things as well as contributing to other bands’ outputs during the 90s would leave other musical contemporaries like Damon Albarn looking somewhat work shy. 

The majority of said collaborative work preceded his own solo offerings, the last of which was some 14 years ago now with 2001’s brilliant Insignificance. Never one to spend much time in the public spotlight or to mix in musical circles, other than those of his own choosing, Jim retreated from his native America 10 years ago and has since called Tokyo home. Simple Songs is the perhaps knowingly ironic title of his latest release; as this short collection of songs are anything other than simple. 

Jim has always been a master of that awkwardly titled genre ‘Post-Rock’. Masterfully creating songs that blend the bombast and histrionics of golden era 70s rock counterbalanced by carefully thought out orchestral arrangements. On Simple Songs it’s very much a case of having one eye on a wryly lyrical pop song whilst the other is on a big studio sound. Almost Spector-like in the lush, layered wall of sound that he produces with his band of Tokyo-based musical collaborators. 

First track, “Friends With Benefits” is a piano led ditty underpinned by an arresting, marching band type drum roll, ending with a big guitar riff, strings, and that same piano refrain playing out. 

“That Weekend” is awash with more strings but continues in a similar sonic vein. Indeed much of Simple Songs is redolent of 1970s American singer-songwriter luminaries. Not least in O’Rourke’s vocals which he stretches further here than in previous offerings. In tracks like, “Hotel Blue” when Jim really lets loose, he calls to mind Harry Nilsson or even Cat Stevens. Technically his voice isn’t quite as strong as either yet he still manages to find, and seem comfortable, in his own lackadaisical timbre.

“These Hands” is a delicate song carried along ably by pedal steel and the occasional ‘oh-oh’ thrown in for good measure. It features the suggestive opening line, “This hand has a mind of it’s own’, representative of his usual acerbic wit when it comes to lyrics. Always fond of a pop sensibility but never afraid to subvert it either. 

Simple Songs is complex and rich, with multilayered instrumentals and lush production. There are moments of quiet frailty that lead onto soaring, heartbreaking ending codas. Fourteen years seems but a drop in the ocean when the reward for your patience is an album this beautiful and complete, full of bittersweet sentiment which offers more with each respective play thorough. Really rather lovely. 

Simple Songs is out now via Drag City Records on CD, vinyl and digital.