Jeeeeeeeeez. Does anyone hate Jim O'Rourke? You'd be surprised. At this point in his career, the 44-year-old composer/performer/experimental rocker/Japanophile/Burt Bacharach is rightly considered a living legend, a demi-god of avant-garde music that is sorely missed here in the States. He never tours and probably never will—besides begging off playing live by insisting the songs on Bad Timing, Eureka, Halfway to a Threeway, and Insignificance are only those exact mixes and a performance wouldn't do them justice, the man seems intent not only on keeping a low profile but actually isolating himself in the Far East, where he can sip tea and smoke cigarettes with his stuffed animals. In this interview from 2009, O'Rourke refers to his lounge pop masterpiece Eureka as "a real failure," and dismayingly, he believes Insignificance is a record everyone hates. Neurotic and shy, it's easy to see why O'Rourke finds instrumental work more comfortable—there's a real bitterness to the lyrics and the mockingly cheery music on those records.
His complete discography is dense and unwieldy, full of excellent but heavy art records like Tamper, I'm Happy and I'm Singing and a 1, 2, 3, 4, and Happy Days, which will definitely scratch your clarinet drone/tape collage/laptop glitch/noise itch, but brutal singer-songwriter black as coal gold it's not. O'Rourke's latest release, a recording of his annual collaborative concert with Keiji Haino and Oren Ambarchi in Tokyo dubbed Now While It's Still Warm Let Us Pour in All the Mystery, is another record for a different mindset, one academic musicians and free jazz fans can gladly get behind. It's a masterful performance, with O'Rourke mostly manipulating oscillators and frequencies and skronking out a bit on the guitar. Ambarchi's drumming is powerful and dominating without coming off as cheesy, Haino's histrionic vocal performance is totally off-putting and viciously irritating, but his guitar playing is amazing, and the tones captured by all the players are vividly rich and evocative, making us actually pay attention to a distorted, overdriven guitar solo because the tonal quality is interesting and raucous in a new way.
With titles like "Only the Winding 'Why' Expresses Anything Clearly," "A New Radiance Springing Forth from Inside the Light," "Once Again I Hear the Beautiful Vertigo Luring Us to 'Do Something, Somehow'," "Who Would Have Thought This Callous History Would Become My Skin," and "Even That Still Here and Unwanted Can You and I Love It Just Like Us It Was Born Here Too," this record is strangely bereft of personality and the distinct aesthetic touches of the players involved. Oh yes, the extended long form guitar solo on "A New Radiance" is milky and beautifully rich, its lightly phased and crunchy tube distortion sending shivers down my spine as I type this, but the freeness of the performance and its spontaneous flow can't compare to O'Rourke's five songwriter masterworks, and though I realize it's unfair and probably maddening to the artist to insist on comparing everything they do to a particular set of pieces, what can I say? The world needs more song-songs by Jim O'Rourke, and while I'm enormously glad he's still releasing music like this, it's a tease of what could be.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1992