Tag Archives: Jim O’Rourke

Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.3 – Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs

jim orourke - simple songs

CD, Drag City, 2015

This album differs starkly from everything else on this year-end rundown in the weight of expectation and breadth of interest its release attracted. Never having heard Jim O’Rourke’s 1999 landmark Eureka and only really having encountered his work through his numerous collaborations and production credits, there is a huge wealth of context behind Simple Songs that I’m not a party to.

My first reference point coming into Simple Songs is the backing band, including Tokyo indie and experimental scene veterans like drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and pianist Eiko Ishibashi, while there are elements of the lineup (including O’Rourke himself) that connect this album to singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno, whose brand of folk and chamber pop shares some similarities with O’Rourke’s own. Yes, he has been doing his thing since way before any of this mattered, but here in Japan now, this is the context into which O’Rourke’s music more or less fits.

And Simple Songs excells, the musicianship an immaculate vehicle for O’Rourke’s meandering musical vision, drifting with ease from one movement to the next, making the dense, rhythmical and melodic complexity of the album feel completely natural. These are not really simple songs then, but while songs like Friends With Benefits and Last Year contain multiple songs’ worth of ideas, each of those ideas has at its heart a simple, memorable pop hook that anchors them in something immediate and accessible without hemming the song in from taking any of its multiple excursions into more abstract sonic territory.

The lyrics feel like a trap for the amateur psychologist, their barbs open to interpretation as possibly a series of vicious put-downs or a maybe a more reflexive exercise in self-laceration. O’Rourke’s lyrics defy easy analysis, but they are sharp and intelligent in their wordplay, and he is a master of his craft when it comes to leaving a word hanging at the end of one line that then gets cruelly undermined by the next.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Simple Songs from the perspective of music in Japan is the production, with the sound striking in how far back it appears to sit, in contrast to the heavily compressed, up-close sound that seems to prevail on so many other people’s records. More than any other record I heard in the past year, Simple Songs seems to want you to feel a sense of the room in which it was recorded – to use the speakers to draw you in rather than to push the sound out.

In the wider music world, the reaction to Simple Songs felt like it had been (not unjustifiably) coloured by all manner of expectations, although it seems to have satisfied most of the anticipation projected onto it. In the more microcosmic space of the Japanese indie scene, it also has a place where it feels at home though, and that it excels in both contexts pays fine testament to Jim O’Rourke’s songwriting and musical vision.

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Strange Boutique (August 2015) – Fuji Rock and making the audience work

My Japan Times column this August kind of follows on from what I was writing about in July, where I discussed some of the problems I have with Rockin’ On Japan magazine and the Rock in Japan festival. In this instance, I look at the same issue from the other side, focusing on Fuji Rock.

What I like about Fuji Rock is that it actively makes life difficult for you, forcing you out of your comfort zone. It can be annoying at first, but once you get past that wall of irritation and absorb yourself into the festival’s way of doing things, it opens out into a much more reqwarding experience. I shan’t go into the specifics of that here, since you can just read it for yourself in the actual article, but I’ll mention briefly that Moon♀Mama (Pika from Afrirampo’s solo work), Oshiripenpenz, Hysteric Picnic, Bombori and Jim O’Rourke all did a great job of representing the Japanese underground scene, while Manic Sheep flew the flag for Taiwan with pride.

Instead, it’s this idea about making the audience work that I think is interesting. I’ve mentioned this before, but the meaning behind the label name Call And Response (apart from retaining the same CAR initials as this site, Clear And Refreshing) is really about the relationship between music and audience. We will reach out to you, but we expect you to meet us part way – you have to do your part of the exchange as well: you have to contribute your half of the conversation. To put it another way, music is not a service industry.

Except of course that for most people music really is a service industry, which is really at the heart of my dislike of the philosophy behind Rock in Japan. It’s also an attitude that filters through into audiences and can lead to a particularly obnoxious sense of entitlement and incredibly lazy listening habits. “I paid money, so entertain me!” sounds like such a hard-nosed, sensible, bottom-line thing to say, but by even considering money as part of the transaction, you’re shifting the whole meaning of art onto commercial terms, which is something I don’t accept.

Exchanges of money happen all the time in the arts, but they are separate, parallel operations to the actual experience the artist and audience share – and the prices have pretty much nothing to do with the actual value of the work to which they are assigned. The really important transaction that’s happening in art is between the extended hand of communication that the artist offers and the open palm of acceptance that the audience extends in return. It’s a transaction that has more in common with sex than commerce.

Fuji Rock isn’t perfect, and anyone who would voluntarily have sex of even the most metaphorical kind with the vile Owl City should be sectioned as a menace to both themselves and to society at large, but it deserves praise as an event that recognises the importance of breaking down the traditional framework in which audiences consume music and constructing a fresh context of its own that you have to make an effort to enter. More generally, I think this process is important in recognising that music isn’t a “pure” thing, free of the sort of lifestyle-orientated branding that I often complain about, but at the same time, that lifestyle can be constructed in a way that is more amenable to a positive and openminded relationship with art and music.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Kenta Maeno, “Nee, Taxi”

For The Guardian’s new music from around the world blog, this is a loving recreation of classic 1970s style Japanese folk.Kenta Maeno: Nee, Taxi

Nee, Taxi is a textbook contemporary example of the style of the style of folk/singer-songwriter music that flooded Japan in the early 1970s, by one of this current generation’s most talented and versatile songwriters. Largely out of fashion now, Kenta Maeno nonetheless dives headfirst into the genre, recreating with the utmost sincerity and affection the bittersweet melodrama, with both his vocals and the music itself shifting in and out of its own rhythmical constraints. While the songwriting is deeply rooted in the 1970s Japanese folk tradition of artists — in particular the legendary Yosui Inoue — Maeno’s approach, aided by producer and musical collaborator Jim O’Rourke, also owes a great deal to contemporary alternative and alt-folk in its delivery.

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