Christian Fennesz and Jim O’Rourke both have some long-standing success collaborating. They’ve both got their own brilliant solo work, but Fennesz also recorded a remarkable album with Sparklehorse for the In the Fishtank series, made the great Knoxville record with Davie Daniell and Tony Buck, and has made music with the likes of Sakamoto and (like O’Rourke) Oren Ambarchi. O’Rourke has collaborated with, mixed, or produced a virtual who’s-who of influential modern music acts, from Sonic Youth to Wilco to John Fahey the Sea and Cake’s Sam Prekop to Smog to you get the idea. Fennesz and O’Rourke have also played together, recording a series of five albums with Peter Rehberg under the name Fenn O’Berg.
The point is, these guys know how to play well with others, which brings us to It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry, the first duo collaboration between Fennesz and O’Rourke. The album contains two side-long pieces, giving the pair two extended cuts to stretch out on and play off of each other. The first cut, “I Just Want You to Stay” runs 18 minutes and builds slowly, patiently, and, in the end, satisfyingly. O’Rourke’s pedal steel blooms quietly to life at the track’s start, melting out into spaces where synths and atmospherics nip at its edges. The track shows a natural chemistry and communication. The song, in feel if not in sound, hearkens back to the careful use of space on O’Rourke’s brilliant LP, The Visitor. Fennesz builds a haunting cloud of faint sound around O’Rourke’s guitar, which then disappears for a while, yielding to other treated guitars, to melting keys dripping in the background, and to—eventually—the growing squal of Fennesz’s wall of sound. Feedback fills all the dark corners. Angular guitars slash through the quiet. Synthesizers seem to breathe noise.
The song peaks with these sounds and then clears out again, mining the echoes around these ghostly sounds for something faint and clear, something sweetly harmonic. If the build-peak-fade construction seems familiar to this kind of extended experiment, in these two masters’ hands, the effect is beautiful. On the track, Fennesz seems to yield the aesthetic to O’Rourke, trusting his long-established knack for the shape sounds should take, or for the spaces it shouldn’t necessarily take up.
The balance shifts on “Wouldn’t Wanna Be Swept Away”, and the results suffer a bit as a consequence. The quieter parts of this track are still interesting. The careful interplay of high keys and low groans at the front of the side creates a curious tension that pulls the listener in. It’s got the same holding-back feel as “I Just Want You to Stay”, which gives the slow build of the track some propulsion. But the first side here takes almost seven minutes to build to crescendo. By the second minute, “Wouldn’t Wanna Be Swept Away” gets crowded up with a storm of guitars and effects that don’t surround you as a listener so much as they overwhelm you. Sure, it could be a representation of the titular fear, presenting a wave of sound you could drown in. But too much of the track leaves you less thrilled by the sensory onslaught and more exhausted.
The wave of noise clears out around the ten-minute mark, and for a second, watery sounds and blipping notes offer a moment of calm, a sudden stillness in the wake of all that churning noise. It brings us back to the quiet pulse at the heart of the record. It’s in the sparer moments that you can feel the back and forth between Fennesz and O’Rourke, and you can feel the subtle melodies and movements of the music. The louder moments here don’t stretch out so much as they condense and hide the most fascinating parts of the record. It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry, then, turns out to be a good collaboration, one that shows the best of both players, but only when they give each other the room to make this sound more like a conversation than a shouting match.