so you wanna get into... jim o'rourke

"it's just my luck / i get hit by a car while carrying a cake"

(photo by james hadfield)

welcome to the first issue of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians.

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jeff tweedy has called jim o’rourke “a true genius” and lee ranaldo has called him “our eno” and oren ambarchi has called him “a really important artist” and if the opinions of these luminaries aren’t enough to convince you of the importance of his eno-like genius well then i’ll throw my two cents in and also say that he’s a genius. o’rourke was born in chicago and grew up there and then moved to new york and he spent a long time palling around with people who music nerds lionize and then in 2005 he turned his back on all that and moved to a small apartment in tokyo and so now he has an air of mystery about him that informs features about him and interviews with him. fans imagine themselves hanging out with thurston moore and can’t conceive of themselves getting tired of that so they can’t conceive of anyone else doing so either. this paired with the relative unpredictability of his recorded output gives him a reputation as an ‘eccentric’ but when i say genius i don’t mean ‘eccentric genius.’ just normal run-of-the-mill genius who happens to live in tokyo.

the word “chameleon” is thrown around a lot in reference to him because music writers aren’t exactly known for their originality but also because I guess it is fitting—after all, he makes a lot of different types of albums (which are like colors?) depending on his… “reactions to temperature and other conditions”? anyhow, he’s crazily prolific and he operates in a lot of styles, which makes him a difficult artist to get into and therefore perfect for this newsletter.

on second thought, o’rourke is maybe not the greatest person to start this whole newsletter thing off with, because honestly any claim to be definitive in my overviews and album rankings has to be thrown out the window right now. there’re just Too Many Jim O’Rourke Albums. for example, he has recorded 46 ‘steamroom’ albums, which are experimental ambient releases named after his recording studio that he puts up on his bandcamp when he feels like. he is also a mad collaborator, recording all sorts of albums with oren ambarchi and keiji haino with titles like Even Though the Sky Will Fall and Is Falling the Cowboy Cannot Rest Under It along with albums with seemingly any other musician he fancies, including very great albums with fennesz and kassel jaeger. also on editions mego there is the ‘old news’ series which consists mainly of archival releases.

also he was in sonic youth and related spin-off projects and produced wilco and stereolab and tony conrad and joanna newsom and had his own great band called gastr del sol. and loose fur and fenn o’berg. oh and he has done a lot of soundtrack work too.

also literally as i was writing that last sentence i saw that his new album is due to be released on december 13 and it is four hours long.

so you understand my quandary: Not a Great Time to Present Oneself as a Jim O’Rourke Completist. but i’ll do my best according to the following guidelines: this is a guide to most of the best jim o’rourke solo albums. that means i’m purposefully leaving out some, like his japan-only release of burt bacharach covers, that i deem Unrecommendable. i’m also leaving out the old news and steamroom series. maybe, Gentle Readers, i can be persuaded to do separate newsletters on these series if you are particularly interested in our pal jim.

there are many ways you can categorize o’rourke’s albums, including by label (“the drag city years” etc), by location (chicago, new york, tokyo etc), and by era (nineties etc) but for me, loose stylistic categories are the best guide to finding Your Unique Jim O’Rourke Entry Point. so here we are: jim o’rourke solo albums will here be sorted into three categories: Expertly Produced Pop-Adjacent Singer-Songwriter Albums; Albums That Vary Widely in Style, Proving His Mastery Across Genres; and Early Experiments in Drone and Noise for the Hardcore Set.

Expertly Produced Pop-Adjacent Singer-Songwriter Albums

there’s a certain type of Self-consciously Earnest White Guy (count me among them) who likes extremely well-produced pleasant pop tunes but for whom the levels of irony surrounding bands like steely dan are simply insurmountable. i know two twins, one of whom listens to steely dan and sagely remarks upon their studio methods and the other of whom quotes their raunchiest lyrics and calls certain passages “xxxtra smooth” with a wink and a smirk. i gaze with wide-eyed catatonia into the abyss between these two modes of enjoyment. and then you have pitchfork’s recent reappraisal of the band which who knows if it’s the last doddering step of their ironic rebellious stance or their last undignified leap into rolling-stone-like inconsequence but the conde nast money suggests the latter. anyway if you want to avoid all that then just listen to these jim o’rourke records because he too is a studio wizard and his songs are just as poppy and good and all the irony is there in the lyrics; you don’t have to take a stance at all.

  1. Eureka (drag city, 1999): ok so these three albums to start off with are all brilliant and you can’t miss but this is the order to go with—Eureka is his first proper ‘singer-songwriter’ album and the ease with which he pulls it off despite not having the best voice is remarkable. fyi this and Bad Timing and Insignificance and The Visitor form his “nicolas roeg series” for which he took titles from roeg’s films. but what you’ve really gotta pay attention to is—unironically—the production on especially the drums and also his lyrics. best song: “ghost ship in a storm” (above)

  2. Simple Songs (drag city, 2015): this is the only singer-songwriter album made after o’rourke achieved what you would in the independent music world call stardom. it’s the most similar to Eureka and is also very excellent but his voice got better and it therefore lacks a certain quirkiness. but the songs, the songs are still there. including the funniest o’rourke line, which is “havin’ a bad time / havin’ a bad time now” a la queen, on “end of the road.” best song: “friends with benefits”

  3. Insignificance (drag city, 2001): this is the most ‘hard-rocking’ of the singer-songwriter stuff which is less my bag but if you like guitar rock then go for it. Bad Timing and Eureka and this often get grouped together as a great run of albums which is true but misleading as Bad Timing properly belongs with Happy Days as we’ll see below. best song: “get a room”

  4. Halfway to a Threeway (drag city, 1999): this here is a companion piece of sorts to Eureka and it gets bottom billing because it’s a lowly ep of four songs and therefore gets you Less O’Rourke For Your Dollar than the others. still good though: throw it on a playlist after Eureka and you have extended your 1999 o’rourke pop jams by 50%. best song: “the workplace”

Albums That Vary Widely in Style, Proving His Mastery Across Genres

like i said up there ^ o’rourke is quite a “chameleon” and so he makes all variety of music. these albums are from different genres but they were all made after his first experimental period, which is covered below, when he had some clout and also when his musicianship and production chops were much improved.

  1. I’m Happy, and I’m Singing, and a 1, 2, 3, 4 (editions mego, 2001): there was a time in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s when laptops were able to run daws for the first time and cds were all the rage and autechre was huge and there was a certain pushback against ‘inhuman’ or ‘cold’ music and so people like oval and four tet made ‘human’ ‘warm’ music, but with computers, and people didn’t know what to call it so they went with the clumsy portmanteau ‘folktronica.’ well i guess that’s what you would call this if you had to do such an awful thing but really I’m Happy… is just a good pop album that proves that o’rourke can manipulate whatever type of audio with whatever tools he wants and my guess is he just wanted to swoop in and show four tet that actually hey this isn’t so hard. best song: “and i’m singing” (above)

  2. Bad Timing / Happy Days (drag city / revenant, 1997): i’m putting these two albums together because they both came out in the same year and they are both what you would call ‘american primitive guitar’ albums, though because Bad Timing was released on drag city it usually gets grouped with all the drag city albums above. now granted Bad Timing is the more traditional of the two, as Happy Days winds up snowballing into a dissonant and frankly unsettling drone, but Happy Days was released by john fahey’s record label and since fahey is the progenitor of all that american primitive guitar stuff i reckon o’rourke was paying somewhat of an homage to him but also expanding the ‘sonic palette’ of the genre. best song: “94 the long way” from Bad Timing

  3. Corona (Tokyo Realization) (columbia, 2007): this interpretation of toru takemitsu’s 1962 “corona for pianist(s)” is one of o’rourke’s most overlooked releases but one of his most interesting. it consists of two 25ish-minute versions of the piece on piano, hammond organ, and fender rhodes and is especially recommended for folks who don’t mind hair-raising scrapes and squeaks in their mid-century japanese improvised prepared piano compositions. also forced exposure called it “one of the most crystalline of O'Rourke's serious works” and i’d love for the pr guy who wrote that to list o’rourke’s “unserious” works and mail it to o’rourke for comment. best song: “tokyo realization 1”

  4. The Visitor (drag city, 2009): The Visitor is probably the most famous instrumental o’rourke album because it’s right in line, stylistically, with the more traditional pop-oriented ones covered up above. it consists of one 38-minute long track featuring guitar and drums and piano and such but it’s deceptively simple. o’rourke said once, if my leaky brain has it right, that parts of it feature 200+ tracks and it took three years to make and one of those years was just mixing. good stuff but for my money if you want the drag city stuff go for the ones with vocals. best song: well it’s only one song

  5. Sleep Like It’s Winter (newhere, 2018): o’rourke’s pal hiroyasu hirakawa asked him to make an ambient album and so he made this one. it’s an interesting outlier because as far as i can tell it’s his only solo ‘commission’ if you’d call it that. o’rourke says that he wanted it to be an ambient album about ambient albums in the same way that Eureka is a pop album about pop albums, but it doesn’t achieve the sort of distance from the genre that you’d need to comment on the genre. i’m not even sure how that would be possible with an ambient album. but i enjoy even uncommented-upon ambient music so that’s all right with me. best song: again, just the one

  6. To Magnetize Money and Catch a Roving Eye (sonoris, 2019): i like that pitchfork started their review of Sleep Like It’s Winter with “Jim O’Rourke doesn’t much care for ambient music” (which he never said, according to their source), and then the next thing that o’rourke put out is a four-hour long ambient album. what he actually said is “what the hell does it mean to make an ‘ambient record’? I wouldn’t. That would be something I would just talk about with someone or think about or make jokes about,” referring to hirakawa’s request, which means that he doesn’t like ‘ambient’ as a genre term, not that he doesn’t like music that other people would call ‘ambient.’ anyhow To Magnetize Money is an ambient album but it plays with genre markers just like most of o’rourke’s work does, mainly by including dynamic shifts that would be verboten in eno’s original definition of ambient. for example the startling jet-take-off moment 9:38 into “Part II.” This is listed last because I can’t in good conscience recommend a four-hour album even if it’s this good; it’s for the bored at heart or ambient lovers only. best song: “Part III”

Early Experiments in Drone and Noise for the Hardcore Set

from 1989 to 1996 o’rourke did the ‘‘80s and early ‘90s chicago noise guy thing’ by which i mean he released weird albums on small labels and hyped up local bands and the like. he was born in 1969 so you can do the math: Some Kind of Pagan, his first one, came out when he was twenty years old and a student at depaul which in retrospect seems like an obvious indicator of future greatness but at the time probably made him Guy #1,002 with a cassette to hawk. try and get your hands on one of those now though. anyhow in these early years he mainly did long-form drone and field recording and stuff that was influenced by mid-century guys like reich and cage.

  1. Terminal Pharmacy (tzadik, 1995): in exclaim’s guide to o’rourke they explicitly advise us to avoid this album because and i quote:

    The first track, "Cede," is a sprawl of experimental landmines, with the piece involving thin layers of crackles, fuzz, drones and uncomfortable amounts of silence. However, that's nothing compared to the second track, which is literally a minute of nothing. As for the third, "Terminal Pharmacy," we will let O'Rourke himself explain. In the liner notes, he writes, "'Terminal Pharmacy' was generally derived from a small part of a 1992 string quartet which was to be performed, I guess, but never was, which was a good thing, because it was awful. A simultaneous speeding and slowing of material, it can nonetheless easily be termed 'music.' Oops."

    allow me to rebut: a) “thin layers of crackles, fuzz, drones and uncomfortable amounts of silence” is good, actually, while b) “literally a minute of nothing” is also good or at worst neutral, and c) the author is dead so god love him but who cares what o’rourke has to say about his own song. the whole album is a treat, so much so that i revel in the moment 17:48 into “cede” when o’rourke starts his car and it starts making that beeping sound. if an album can make you excited about nonsense like that then it’s got to be doing something right. listen to it, and listen to “terminal pharmacy” too which isn’t awful, and while you’re at it listen to the minute of nothing. what else are you doing. best song: fuck it, the minute of silence

  2. Some Kind of Pagan (sound of pig, 1989): alright so here’s the deal: some places on the internet have one track listing for this album while others have another. it depends on where you look but the track “hold these goddamn chickens” is either 4:14 long or 11:51 long. i think what happened is somebody down the line got their Side A mixed up with their Side B, forever tainting the ready information about this rarest of cassettes. oh well. in my version which is from ::ahem:: a less than reputable source the “chickens” song is 11:51 and boy is it a doozy. all this was done live on solo guitar and i’m not a smart man but i swear sometimes it sounds like there’s a drummer involved here. if you had a contrarian nature you could say that this, o’rourke’s first, is also his best, at least among these early releases. i would do that but i kinda ruined it by being contrary to the exclaim guy just now to make a point. best song: the “chickens” one, except in some places that song is called “stayed a while then went away”

  3. Disengage (staalplaat, 1992): this one has all the early o’rourke hallmarks, from field recording to drones to noise, and it sort of has to because it’s long as hell. it’s in two halves, the first of which is called “mere,” which is also old news #8. the second half is where it’s at though—that one’s called “a young person’s guide to drowning” and 9:30-23:00 of Part One rejiggers your sense perceptions like a maryanne amacher piece would. harsh atonal beeping that all at once cuts out and is replaced with nature recordings, which is like a steady-handed windexing for your brain. nothing better. best song: the one i just described

  4. Two Organs (three poplars, 2004; recorded 1991): this one is as they say ‘reichian’ from its title to its minimalistic phasing drones. he recorded it while still in college but it wasn’t released until 2004. its first track is also steamroom #28. not particularly unique, but it is quite hypnotic. best song: “two organs”

  5. The Ground Below Above Our Heads (entenpfuhl, 1991): also steamroom #9. Side A builds into an all-consuming juddering wall of feedback, which, if you’re into that sort of thing, can’t be beat. Side B is a grisly slab of bass. best song: Side A obviously

  6. Remove the Need (extreme, 1993): like Some Kind of Pagan, this features live solo guitar except this time longer tracks of dronier music. it’s got some interesting parts but feels a bit aimless at times where Pagan does not. best song: “zurich two”

  7. Tamper (extreme, 1991): this your Standard Drone Album. only for the die-hards. best song: “ascend through unspoken shadow”

    Scend (divided, 1992): so i’ve got this whole thing about how field recording is the new punk rock because digital recorders are so cheap and you can edit and mix in audacity and the learning curve is nearly nonexistent and everybody’s aural surroundings are unique, or at least the way they approach recording them is unique, and so in the name of pure horizontal democracy all field recordings are really aesthetically equal and shouldn’t be judged in an hierarchic list like this. also it’s inherently political (everything is anyway) because taking a recorder to your mundane daily life frames it for other people, not to mention all the environmental reasons to make nature recordings because the world is on fire and such. so anyway this album doesn’t get a number because it’s the field recording album. best song: aha! you thought you’d trick me but no song can be considered the ‘best’ here

and that’s it. for completists, there’re rare cassettes including It Takes Time to Do Nothing and Secure on the Loose Rim so if you’ve listened to the 18 albums above and still want more solo o’rourke, you can go on a scavenger hunt across old blogspots to find live download links for those. i’d recommend instead starting on the collaborations though, including this…

Extra Bonus Recommendation!

and now for an extra bonus recommendation as a reward for reading… 3,169 words about jim o’rourke. scanner was an improvisational group that o’rourke was a part of with robin rimbaud and robert hampson. Mass Observation, from 1994, is their most famous recording because david toop opened his book Ocean Sounds with a weird description of it and bjork sampled it. rimbaud somehow used a radio receiver to pick up people’s phone conversations and record them straight to tape. there’re weird private conversations in here (even phone sex stuff) which gives the whole recording a voyeuristic and extra-legal vibe. wild stuff. room40, god bless them, released the full recording of the session in 2018.

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