Jim O’Rourke is a musical man for all seasons: as a composer, collaborator, producer, and a former member of Sonic Youth, he possesses a rare talent for lending a distinctive sound to each field without tying himself to any particular idiom. His solo albums at times could be mistaken for John Fahey (a onetime collaborator), or the experimental electronica of Christian Fennesz. His production credits have been of higher profile, including Joanna Newsom’s Ys and Wilco’s most experimental outings, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. A personal favorite is his partnership with David Grubbs as Gastr Del Sol, which, after four albums culminated with Camofleur, a masterpiece of shifting moods and pop song craft that is one of the most underrated albums of the last ten years.
To put it succinctly, you can never be sure what to expect of something with Jim O’Rourke’s name attached to it. Case in point: two new releases from Drag City, Tamper, a reissue of a 1990 electro-acoustic set, and Mimidokodesuka, a free improvisation recording made in 2006 in Japan under the name Osorezan. They share little in style or even production, but together they add to O’Rourke’s reputation as a true musical adventurer.
One of O’Rourke’s trademarks as a producer is his ability to elevate organic instruments to an ethereal, sepia-toned place (see his treatment of horns on Yankee Hotel). His electro-acoustic compositions also focus on transforming the organic, though more often the sounds are subverted and submersed in a stew of tweakery, in the case of Tamper, analog tape manipulation. The album starts things off very slowly—it takes about seven minutes for the first intangible drone to reach full volume—and the pace continues throughout the three pieces. “Spirits Never Forgive” shifts from this initial throbbing hum, the texture of which is similar to the work of Keith Fullerton Whitman, to a more active section of percussion and unadorned violin improvisation by Warren Fisher. It is not an altogether smooth or intuitive transition, though the complimentary tones of the two sections justify the piece’s 18-minute running time.
“He Felt the Patient Memory of a Reluctant Sea” is more cohesive and successful: the bed of the piece is another drone heavy in overtones, upon which O’Rourke and Ken Novotny weave oboe and clarinet, respectively, into tightly grouped clusters and near-melodies. The standout track is finisher “Ascend Through Unspoken Shadow”, an appropriately titled composition of constantly rising pitches and textures, from swooping bass trombone and bass clarinet up to frenetic violins. It recalls Ligeti’s chilling work that was featured in 2001, both in structure, and as a summoning of the extra-terrestrial in common sound waves.
If one were to listen to Mimidokodesuka immediately following Tamper, the slow fade and ambient percussion that opens the album would certainly feel like the work of the same artist. The entrance of O’Rourke’s punchy, distorted guitar soon dashes this sentiment. By 2006, O’Rourke had enough of a reputation that he could choose whatever musicians he wanted to drag over to Japan, and he picked some good ones: virtuosos Chris Corsano on drums (a sometimes Bjork collaborator) and Darin Gray on bass form a powerful improvisational unit known as Osorezan.
Though it is difficult to account for their methods of communication, O’Rourke seems to lead them from noisy mountains to sparse valleys, his guitar playing a mix of Sonic Youth squall and Derek Bailey atonality. Corsano and Gray provide a steady aerobic workout of sound, the drumming in particular offering a dazzling palette of rolls and pops. The three improvisations follow the same structure of quiet-LOUD-quiet, which can grow slightly tiring by “In Addition”, and Osorezan will test the patience of all but free improv enthusiasts.
With an artist as versatile and hard to place as Jim O’Rourke, anything he records seems worthy of official release. Though both of these albums involve some aspect of improvisation, Tamper has a stronger grasp of compositional form and offers a more immersive listening experience. As Mimidokodesuka is a live album, it subtracts O’Rourke’s production prowess from the equation, and demonstrates little more than his instrumental stamina. Recordings of free improvisation generally have something lost in translation (movie pun semi-intended), perhaps the physical electricity between the players. While neither of these albums will be the first thing I lean towards when I need an O’Rourke fix (that would go to Camofleur), they add to his aura as a daring and talented musician.