Why can’t more musicians take pleasure in the anonymity that their art could potentially grant them? Think about it: Not only does music have the ability to distend time and reorder history (groovy!), but the pleasure of the playing allows us to disappear from ourselves. Look at Phil Spector. He was and is a pretty animated fellow with a healthy ego and desire for celebrity, but the music he made didn’t exist to flatter him . (Well, “To Know Him Is to Love Him” is supposed to be about his dad.) We don’t listen to Mr. Spector, we listen to Phil Spector Productions. That room of clustered pianos drowns him out.
Maybe Jim O’Rourke is our Phil Spector. Like the reclusive 60’s phenom, he remains a nonentity once you set your sights above the microtonal melee that is the indie-experimental scene today. But Mr. O’Rourke would seem to value that anonymity, creating albums that exist without any self-reference, burying himself in other people’s manifestos and taking over Steve Albini’s role as the guy from Chicago willing to produce anybody. The last few years have seen him give up his livelihood as an improvisatory (and noisy) guitarist to bearhug pop craft. He’s produced everyone from John Fahey to Stereolab to Red Krayola. But while Mr. Albini’s reputation inflates in proportion to how often he self-loathingly questions whether he actually does anything, Mr. O’Rourke seems to be everywhere without appearing anywhere.
Take Smog’s latest album, Knock Knock (Drag City), which may well prove the premiere “rock” release in this first fiscal quarter. Smog is, essentially, the extremely erratic singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, another in Drag City’s endless array of lampshade-wearing sourpusses whose finest attribute is his willingness to beg a certain humiliation to go along with a sometimes self-aggrandizing introspection. Though a sharp fellow, Mr. Callahan lacks the drunken, educated kind-of-madness of his fellow labelmate David Berman, he of Silver Jews. Mr. Callahan is usually only as good as the company he keeps, and has recorded a lot of average-and-below stuff supported by a gaggle of friends who create the illusion that there’s more there than meets the ear. Although you won’t see Mr. O’Rourke’s name (or any name save Mr. Callahan’s) on Knock Knock , this is a full-blown O’Rourke production that manages to meld Mr. Callahan’s country-tinged melancholy (“A goat and a monkey/ A mule and a flea/ Let’s move to the country/ Just you and me”) to a perversely rich background that forges the connection between the faceless boogie rock of the 70’s and the Velvet Underground. There are also a few avant-gardists rocking out for good measure, like guitarist Loren Mazzacane-Connors, and on a couple of tracks a post-ironic children’s choir.
Why isn’t this hateful, in the manner of, say, Momus? Perhaps because these disparate elements, often signposts of a lip-curling kitschiness, are combined to produce genuine feeling. This is Mr. O’Rourke’s genius, much like it was Mr. Spector’s: incubating a heightened phoniness, mining the operatic intensity of extravagance by any means necessary, while delivering an honest emotional kick that often comes across as modest.
The classically trained Mr. O’Rourke does not draw attention to his misfit status, but its tumble is there for us to hear. His admitted models–blues historian-turned-refugee John Fahey, Brian Wilson-collaborator Van Dyke Parks, first-wave minimalist Tony Conrad, Jacques Brel manqué Scott Walker–managed to represent various old-school experimentalist obsessions with “Americana” and court embarrassment while maintaining the composure of the quirky scientist. Indeed, with 1968’s Song Cycle , Mr. Parks created the ultimate white hipster-geek totem–a long out-of-print prelapsarian suite, sometimes dubiously referred to as the first art-rock album, which values Stephen Foster over Chuck Berry. It is proudly–symphonically–unlistenable.
Much of the work Mr. O’Rourke hijacks for his ear candy is audaciously awful–but pointed. It is the sort of awfulness that necessitates a focused and convincing narrative intelligence. To wit: His favorite film is Ken Russell’s Lisztomania . On his aptly titled upcoming album, Eureka (Drag City), due out in April, “Through the Night Softly” digs into the non-stoner potential of the sax section of Dark Side of the Moon (adding steel drums) while “Something Big” is simultaneously the most perverse and spot-on Burt Bacharach-Hal David mimicry set to record.
Is it parody? Homage? An extra-credit assignment? Mr. O’Rourke understands that that which is embarrassing in art is often what is most moving–and that we often institutionalize such artists, deadening their sting, in order to deal with this. If this leads to him producing a couple of truly horrendous works, such as Bobby Conn’s Rise Up! (Truckstop/Atavistic), an out-and-out Christian prog-rock game show led by a self-promoting fake crazy man, or Stephen Prina’s Push Comes to Love (Drag City, co-produced with David Grubbs), an unbearably coy and prissy work, Mr. O’Rourke’s experimental background allows him the leisure of accepting the weaknesses as part of the project. After all, it’s not really him, it’s the work.
And the songs on Eureka that don’t come off as intellectual exercises, such as the opening track “Prelude to 110 or 220/ Women of the World,” seem to effortlessly combine 100 years of American musical cultures and subcultures and in-jokes while wearing a straight face and working above all as music, not commentary. Eureka manages to merge Jack Nitzsche with Sandy Bull and Terry Riley, while tying the whole mishmash into a folk tradition.
Even a record on which Mr. O’Rourke downplays his musical presence, such as Sam Prekop’s new eponymous solo album (Thrill Jockey), reflects his knowledge in the details. Mr. Prekop is a member of the Sea and Cake, a band that shares several members with Tortoise, including the drummer and producer John McEntire. (If Mr. O’Rourke is our Phil Spector, then Mr. McEntire is our Jerry Wexler.) The Sea and Cake spent its first few albums merging a likably shambling indie-rock take on Curtis Mayfield with a ricky-ticky improv feel centered around Mr. Prekop’s winded delivery. But rock being dead, their last album was heavily produced and bleepy in the manner of the post-rock crowd over which Tortoise reigns. The organic feel of Mr. Prekop’s solo album would seem to be a reaction to that bleepiness.
Sam Prekop sounds like a singer-songwriter album, but it’s Mr. O’Rourke’s production touches (i.e., strings, jazz ringer and great drummer Chad Taylor, a subtle samba sadness) that turn Mr. Prekop into Joni Mitchell. In fact, Mr. O’Rourke’s “Please Patronize Our Sponsors,” on Eureka , wouldn’t sound at all out of place there; consider the title Mr. O’Rourke’s philosophy. When the project asks for it, Mr. O’Rourke disappears into the history books–and if his work over the last few years is any indication, he might end up in them. Thankfully, Ken Russell will be dead by then, so he won’t be available for the movie.