[7 October 2004]
Everyone from die-hard music geeks to casual fans are obsessed with the categorization of the music they love. “I like everything except country” holds down one end of the spectrum, while devotees of the latest techno micro-genre hammer down the other. Musicians themselves tend to have a love-hate relationship with labeling, unless they just want to RAWK. Chicago-based oRSo have a particular dilemma: neither immediately accessible nor inaccessible, just inscrutably hard to pin down. Is it folk? Post-rock? Jazz? As familiar as the music sounds, none of those tags feel at all appropriate. While this reaps artistic rewards in creative freedom and exploration, even open minds have a hard time shelving songs like “Mavis” and “Circle R” in their mental cabinets. The band’s third official release, My Dreams Are Back and They Are Better Than Ever, won’t help you decide on filing it closer to Oldham or Oval, but the more you listen the more its melodies and textures carve out their own turf in your subconscious.
oRSo are the brainchild of chief vocalist/songwriter Phil Spirito (formerly of slowcore pioneers Rex), who plays tenor guitar and banjo, among other instruments. Throughout the band’s history the line-up has fluctuated in large and small incarnations. The self-titled first record, for example, featured Califone’s Tim Rutili and Ben Massarella on all manner of pots, pans, and strings. This time around, the band is a tight quartet consisting of Spirito, Carlo Cennamo on alto sax, Griffin Rodriguez on double bass, and Julie Liu on viola and violin. The arrangements of songs like “Blind Date” and “Hartz of Darkness” are among the band’s most sparse on record in terms of the number of instruments in the mix, but the way those textures play with each other is nonetheless rich and complex. Cennamo may have even changed my entire opinion of the saxophone, which before now I’d always considered to be the scourge of the musical instrument kingdom. But the man does not play the thing even approaching convention. It pops up here and there, floating out notes like stones skipped across a pond on the instrumental “Oh Look Singing I Can Watch This”, while Rodriguez’s bass gently zooms.
Though most of the songs are performed without drums, oRSo have rarely sounded more focused in time. It’s as if the ghost of percussion is haunting everyone else’s instruments. Spirito’s banjo does double duty of keeping steady time and anchoring the melodies of Liu and Cennamo. The songs are also among Spirito’s most directly narrative, though they’re still (thankfully) a long way from completely straight-forward. “Is Christmas Tomorrow”, bookended on either side by the instrumentals “Milenesa One” and “Milanesa Two”, is the most obvious example. Spirito sings in smooth, hushed tones about “Dreams of running into / Santa’s open arms / Never pause to think of / Milk and cookies by the fire”. But the experience of listening to an oRSo song is less about a hearing a tale start to finish than, appropriately, dream-like snapshots from all over. “Crown Point” repeats the line “I can see my way home” over and over until there are thousands of ways and homes to imagine.
As much as writers bandy tags like “garage”, “industrial”, and “twang” about until they have no meaning (myself included), they also are a bit too free and breezy with the terms “original” and “idiosyncratic.” I’ve heard plenty of even great records in the past five years praised for their originality, even as their references are blatantly obvious. oRSo are one of the few bands truly deserving of recognition as unique. My Dreams confidently but humbly swirls and hops on the periphery of musical pigeonholing, waiting especially and specifically for you.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/orso-mydreams/