Jim O'Rourke has heard his excellent new album, Insignificance, likened to the work of flag-waving Floridian rabble-rousers Lynyrd Skynyrd one too many times.
"That's how I've been able to spot all the one-minute listeners," he says, laughing, admitting that the first few bars of the record do in fact bear the mark of Ronnie Van Zant like a well-coifed rat-tail. "I didn't think of it as Southern rock -- it isn't even meant to be like that -- but that's how people hear it."
You really can't blame them: "All Downhill From Here," the album's lead track, packs a considerable punch, and not one you'd expect from a guy whose other new album is a laptop affair called I'm Happy, and I'm Singing, and a 1, 2, 3, 4. Nonetheless, there's the Van Zant family seal: a big, nasty electric-guitar riff -- the kind that nit-picks around a chord for a second before sliding headlong into it, without looking back -- and a shuffling, cymbal-crusted backbeat and a groove that just bobs your damn head clear on down to the Okefenokee. Of course, O'Rourke's right, too -- after that initial blast of sunburned jubilation, the Southern-fried rock's pretty much off limits. Deliciously, not much else is.
That's just business as usual for O'Rourke, who in indie-rock circles has come to be synonymous with versatility, a producer / arranger / mixer / singer / songwriter / multi-instrumentalist who's worked on more records in the past couple of years than you might've bought. For starters, there are his own albums, most notably the ones he's made for Chicago indie Drag City that have cleared a path from finger-picked acoustic guitar meditations to baroque pop confections as elegantly as a velveteen weed whacker. Fans of O'Rourke's old band Gastr Del Sol, a long-standing project that over time came to umbrella the musical explorations of O'Rourke and partner David Grubbs, weren't surprised by that development, as Gastr pulled a similar stunt with wonky, free-rock soundscapes that eventually deliquesced into achingly pretty pop songcraft.
It's a revelatory approach to "fringe" rock 'n' roll that's demonstrated O'Rourke's uncommonly deep understanding of American roots music and what spirals out from that nucleus: Allow the delicate guitar arpeggios of 1997's solo Bad Timing, which conjure the pastoral landscaping of master finger-pickers John Fahey and Leo Kottke, to wash over you and see if you even notice when the pocket-size marching band enters, so naturally do the two superficially opposing aesthetics mesh. That sensibility makes it easy to grasp why Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, a man who knows a thing or two himself about the submerged complexities of American music, turned to O'Rourke to mix Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco's beleaguered fourth album that will finally see release this month on WEA's sophisticated Nonesuch imprint (home to such reputation-makers as Tropicalia pioneer Caetano Veloso and minimalist master Steve Reich, among others). ("I came in halfway on that," O'Rourke shrugs when asked about his effect on the album.)
But how to explain other O'Rourke projects like his production work with European Moog fetishists Stereolab, or Windy City popsters the Aluminum Group, or veteran indie-rockers Superchunk? Or his recent appointment as the fifth member of one of the world's most dependable band of guitar deconstructionists, Sonic Youth?
"People always ask that, but what I always ask is like, 'When you hear them, can you tell it's me?' And usually people say yeah," he says, laughing. "So it's like, 'What's the difference?' I don't understand how people get into music who say, 'I like this type of music.' I don't understand that. To me, it's all facets of the same thing. I just like what I think is good."
Insignificance bears out that attitude. Like all O'Rourke's Drag City discs, the record's grounded in the organic hues of the folk-rock tradition, acoustic guitars supplying a supple foundation for sonic extrapolations like that in "Memory Lame," in which Tweedy, returning the favor as a part of O'Rourke's crack backing band, reels off a series of broken-angel electric-guitar curlicues and cornetist Rob Mazurek fills in the gaps.
Elsewhere, he ditches the acoustics altogether and tries on bruising kraut-rock on "Therefore, I Am," as riff-dependent a tune as O'Rourke's ever written. But unlike its predecessor, Eureka, on which O'Rourke took the carefully manicured studio-pop atmosphere to its logical extent (i.e., covering Burt Bacharach's "Something Big" and playing it astonishingly straight-faced), Insignificance boasts a kick his other material has at times avoided, a looseness that pervades the set even when the boogie-rock stomp takes a back seat to finessed pop lilt.
"I think that's mostly because it was recorded as a band," he explains, "as opposed to the last record, which was recorded bit by bit. We recorded the band playing the stuff -- you know, you just play differently when you're playing with people."
True to his chameleonic form, the live setup wasn't the first idea O'Rourke had for the album. "I wasn't happy with the way it was going," he says of the initial sessions, which were more like those for Eureka. "I tend to make the records a couple times, with different approaches, and I just decided to do [it live] because we had done a couple shows for Eureka with this same band, and there was nothing documenting the way we played the stuff when we all played together, so I wanted to try it that way, and it just ended up being the best way to do these songs."
Still, if it's loose, it's not ragged. In all his work, O'Rourke is a master of detail, a true adherent to the idea that if you're going to do something, you should do it well. On I'm Happy, and I'm Singing, O'Rourke's gorgeous new computer-music album, that concentration is easy to see, as carefully constructed bits of sound lap up against each other.
On Insignificance, it's the small nooks in the music that reveal O'Rourke's obsession with specifics: the padding drums that underpin "Life Goes Off," the way the bass and guitar intertwine on "Get a Room," the undulating waves of Reich-like arpeggios that open "Memory Lame."
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"I'm very meticulous before we go in, unfortunately for those poor guys," he laughs of his bandmates. "They don't seem to mind, but I'm terrible -- I tell them exactly what to play. But, you know, their parts are written with them in mind."
O'Rourke points out that much of the work was done pre-studio, an experience he found liberating. "I don't think anything on there was more than two takes. I don't think there's any edits, either. There's obviously overdubs, like the singing and the keyboards, but otherwise it's actually pretty live. We rehearsed, but once we went in the studio, we had it."
Ronnie Van Zant, you can't help but think, would be proud.