Recording of November 2009: The Visitor

Jim O'Rourke: The Visitor
Drag City DC375CD (CD). 2009. Jim O'Rourke, prod., eng. AAD? TT: 38:03
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Musicians all say they detest labels. "I'm not a singer-songwriter! My blonde cornrows look nothing like Axl Rose's! My guitar playing does not sound like a man strangling a pony!"

1109rotm.jpgBut in the strange case of Jim O'Rourke, the many labels he's acquired have made him quite the man of mystery. Early in his career, this musical jack-of-all-trades (as an instrumentalist, he gravitates toward guitar and keyboards) made a cottage industry out of being a collaborator, working in such fringe genres as electronica, musique concrète, ambient music, atonal classical composition, Krautrock, even a little out jazz. Some of his coconspirators have included such angular talents as David Jackman's drone project Organum, World/experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser, British improv guitarist Derek Bailey, and Swedish free-jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. He's also composed a commission for the Kronos Quartet and scored films by Shinji Aoyama and Werner Herzog. Under the label of producer, O'Rourke has helmed records by a number of quixotic artists like Joanna Newsom, Saint Etienne, and the great John Fahey.

For five years (1993–98), O'Rourke was part of the ongoing experimental rock band Gastr Del Sol. In 2000, in a not too surprising move, the experimental Chicagoan joined another increasingly adventurous Illini outfit, Wilco, with whom he helped engineer the band's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; produce their Grammy-winning 2004 album, A Ghost Is Born; and, finally, form a collaboration with Wilco members Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche under the name Loose Fur. This intriguing side project, on which all three actually put in audible time and effort, resulted in a pair of listenable records, Loose Fur (2003) and a heavier-sounding follow-up, Born Again in the USA (2006). In 2000, O'Rourke put the capper on his alt-rock pedigree by becoming part (member seems too strong a term) of Sonic Youth, in an arrangement that endured until 2005. In that capacity he played in the band, both live and on record, and served as their in-house engineer and mixer.

O'Rourke's solo work has appeared in fits and starts over the years on labels as diverse as Sound of Pig, Tzadik (aka John Zorn), and, most recently (other than several harder-to-find reissue exceptions), Drag City, the storied Chicago alt-rock stalwart. O'Rourke's last solo records came in 2001. While the fragile computer music of I'm Happy, and I'm Singing, and a 1, 2, 3, 4 was impossible to dislike, and was in spots quite beautiful, his "rock" outing from the same year, Insignificance, rocked the world of the hopelessly idealistic portion of his fan base, who hallow him as a fearless, incorruptible crusader against all that is mainstream. They were insulted by the album's straightforward (for O'Rourke) rock songs, all-star backing band (headed by Jeff Tweedy), and lyrics that a review on Chicago's—a review littered with the pronoun I—called, on first listen, the work of a man "overestimating his own importance." Newsflash: The essence of elusive artistry is motion and making unexpected turns, be they cloying or clamorous. This is borne out even by O'Rourke's choices of album-cover art, which range from close-ups of fuzzy animal puppets to the oddly childish and disarming drawings one assumes are his alter egos.

On The Visitor, O'Rourke again turns toward the mainstream. This time there are no pesky lyrics to brood over—he spends much of his time in Tokyo, so perhaps Japanese reviewers will now feel slighted by this silence—but what is here may be one of the most coherent musical compositions he's recorded. Supposedly the culmination of 200 separate recording tracks, this 38-minute tone poem of sorts moves from moody and ruminative, in its early sections of unaccompanied acoustic guitar, to a layered blossoming, a tingly, shimmering mini-orchestra in full if repetitive flight of jittery cymbals, jaunty snare drum, repeated banjo figures, keyboard flourishes, and electronic flutes and saxophones that rise in a crescendo before falling away to a beautiful yet very simple piano melody backed by electronics. It is one of O'Rourke's least guarded—if not full-blown sentimental—moments ever captured on tape. All sorts of allusions come to mind, particularly when hearing the ascending piano lines that ripple through the piece near its finale. It's part George Winston, part the kind of Debussy/Ravel dreaminess that once attracted jazz horn players; there is also the suggestion of John Fahey's expansiveness, and an attractive sort of harmonic minimalism that seems through-composed rather than improvised, and meticulously arranged instead of allowed to float.

And speaking of tape and those 200 rumored tracks, this CD's sound is so natural and uncompressed that it's easy to fulfill O'Rourke's plea, printed in the liner notes: "Please listen on speakers, loud." A mannered piece of music that demands repeated listens to draw out its quiet richness, The Visitor is a fine, resonant, genial interlude in a varied career surely destined for more exclusive, unconformable surprises.—Robert Baird