Reviewed by: Max Miller
As I prepare to write about Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs, I am reminded of another review. I could have sworn it was on Pitchfork, but I cannot find a trace of it anywhere. The author described O’Rourke as having the worst singing voice he or she had ever heard. I remember finding this odd, seeing as a) his voice really isn’t all that bad and b) just like every conventionally bad singer from Lou Reed to David “All My Favorite Singers Couldn’t Sing” Berman, he more than makes up for any vocal shortcomings with lyrical grace and immaculate songwriting.
I’m reminded of these other reviews because Simple Songs is the most conventional album O’Rourke (who, if you don’t know him from his solo material, you almost certainly know from his production work for Wilco, Sonic Youth and Smog, among many others) has released in over a decade. As such, his ability to beautifully transcend what could be seen as a restrictive palette shines through all the more powerfully.
As one would expect from someone as production-savvy as O’Rourke, the record is so dense with pianos, strings, vibraphones and other instruments that I feel ashamed to have had access to it only through laptop speakers. It would be one thing to layer all these touches on top of some pristine pop songs like a modern-day Phil Spector with less murderous proclivities, but O’Rourke can’t abide that kind of simplicity. The tunes here start in one place, and just when you think you’ve got them figured out, he makes a left turn right into a different key, time signature or both. At times, such as on the agitated “That Weekend,” it can be quite daunting. Over all this, his vocals (which only sound better with age) have the kind of quiet grace of a sad Warren Zevon or Cat Stevens. He layers them liberally, perhaps trying to cover up any perceived imperfections, as Isaac Brock does. “Hotel Blue” even finds him exploring the higher sections of his range, to glorious effect.
For all its progressive compositional inclinations, Simple Songs can feel like something of a “dad rock” album for the modern era. It almost wholly ignores any sonic developments of the last decade, including even some of the modern-meets-retro touches that O’Rourke has used producing groups like Wilco in the past. Clearly, one would hope he wouldn’t try to pull an electronic dance music record out of his ass, but with a record as thrillingly gorgeous as this one, one can’t help but wonder what he might be able to do with less traditionally-minded instrumentation. Hopefully we won’t have to wait over a decade for him to release another of his more singer-songwriter-inclined albums to find out.