Soft and Clear
When experimental musician and producer Jim O’Rourke named his recent tribute album All Kinds of People ~ Love Burt Bacharach he wasn’t being funny. The pop composer has received accolades from notables in all genres during more than five decades of writing hit songs. Legends from classic rock like the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagan have spoken of Bacharach’s seminal influence, as have jazz masters like Stan Getz and Wes Montgomery. More contemporary rockers like Elvis Costello and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher have praised Bacharach’s genius as have hip-hop maven Dr. Dre and soul master Ronald Isley. The list of those who love the pop maestro could go on endlessly.
Still, when word hit the streets about O’Rourke’s latest project, one couldn’t but wonder if was a joke. The sunny sound of Bacharach’s melodies seemed antithetical to the former bass player for Sonic Youth, a band known for its dark spirit. Yet O’Rourke, a known Paul McCartney fan, always had an impish quality that found its way into his music. O’Rourke’s production, on disparate works like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Joanna Newsom’s Ys, beguilingly revealed an upbeat, happy, even sappy spirit.
O’Rourke brings that part of his sensibility to this album, in everything from his song selections to the guest singers to the instrumentation. This is a gloriously silly album from beginning to end. It’s also musically inventive, beautifully performed and sung, and pristinely produced so that every little sound can be discerned and appreciated. Some records are meant to be heard loud and clear, but this one begs to be heard soft and clear.
The cuts here range from the big hits like “I Say A Little Prayer”, “You’ll Never Get To Heaven” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” to more obscure gems such as “After the Fox” and “Anonymous Phone Call”. Still, the recognizable songs outnumber the lesser-known ones. The guest vocalists will be less familiar to most American listeners and include Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono, Kahimi Karie, Yoshimi, and several other Japanese artists.
O’Rourke has lived in Tokyo for about four years, and while he has always been an idiosyncratic artist, his expatriate existence somehow makes him seem more American. He ignores his singers’ mispronunciations and awkward grammar in favor of sincerity, and it works like a charm. While the lyrics may not be sung perfectly from an English teacher’s (or in the case of “After the Fox”, from an Italian teacher’s) perspective, they are always perfectly charming.
Some of the incorrect word choices are deliberately provocative. Hosono turns the romantic “Close to You” into the narcissistic “Close to Me”, as he sings of his personal wonderfulness. This echoes other changes O’Rourke makes in his selection of instruments. Is that really a steel drum taking the lead in “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head?” There’s no way to be sure. O’Rourke is more interested in capturing the atmosphere of the song in creative ways than in being faithful to the originals. Still, he takes pains to keep the music as close to the originals as he can. A careful listener can note when O’Rourke makes substitutions, and admire his inspired resourcefulness. Every cut offers its own delights. O’Rourke handles most of the instrumental duties and does sing lead on three cuts, plus he’s ably assisted by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and others.
Fans have long praised Bacharach as a genius for his ability to write sophisticated pop tunes full of unexpected turns of phrase and emotional depth. This album will add to O’Rourke’s reputation as a brilliant artist in his own right, for the same reasons.