By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
"I'M A FUCKING improviser!" ubiquitous avant-rock guitarist Jim O'Rourke told Magnet last year. "And if I want to stick a broom up my nose...I'm going to do it!" Like Chi-town's other post-rock alpha males, O'Rourke often acts as if he gets off on annoying and confusing his audience. At times his work with Sonic Youth, the Pastels, the High Llamas, the Red Krayola, Gastr Del Sol, and Tortoise, among others, suggests the same perversity. But the occasional confrontational posture aside, O'Rourke is turning into a bit of a softie. A hint of this might be the caricature of a chubby, nude O'Rourke covering his crotch with a stuffed bunny on the cover of his new Eureka. The proof, however, is the music therein, which shies away from abrasive atonality and musique concrète in favor of heavily orchestrated pop pastiche.
His new album Eureka investigates a tension between bombastic Van Dyke Parks-influenced melodiousness and Fahey-style fingerpicking that O'Rourke first examined on Gastr Del Sol's gorgeous 1998 swan song, Camofleur. His unironic go at light pop is almost always triumphant and beautiful, even if this studied anti-tunesmith is still a bit uneasy with the cornerstones of pop: structure and hooks.
With the exception of the succinct and pretty "Ghost Ship on the Storm" and "Something Big" (a Burt Bacharach cover), O'Rourke tries to make grand pop gestures work within meandering, droning soundscapes. "Movie on the Way" opens with four minutes of ambient fidgeting, only to unexpectedly burst into a gentle lounge number. On the aimless "Prelude/Women," loping fingerpicking introduces a sweet melody before bells and strings join in to accompanying O'Rourke's vocal, "Women of the world, take over!/Because if you don't, the world will come to an end." It's a brilliant opening line, full of glee and good intentions. Sadly, that's all we get, as O'Rourke repeats that verse for nearly eight minutes. Ultimately, it's annoying enough to make you want to ram a broomstick up his nose.
Behind the board, O'Rourke is infinitely more focused. His production on the 15th disc by Smog (a.k.a. Bill Callahan) enlivens the basement-bound songwriter's sometimes muddled stories about the sad, guilty libertine and/or wandering, restless outcast. While albums like 1993's Julius Caesar and 1996's The Doctor Came at Dawn had moments of lo-fi beauty, they also had plenty of dry, tuneless filler, and it often seemed as if Callahan couldn't seem to tell the difference between the two. Throughout his decade-plus career, great moments (Caesar's "37 Push Ups") have seemed as accidental as forgettable ones (1994's Burning Kingdom).
Yet on Knock Knock, O'Rourke's sonic playfulness frees up Callahan to elevate his somber, earnest storytelling with moments of wry sarcasm and musical wit. Callahan has always had a goofball side (note Caesar's charming "I Am Star Wars!" in which Callahan shouts the title over a Rolling Stones sample), but here he and his producer sidestep such one-note jokes by adding clever turns to otherwise plain arrangements. "No Dancing" features plodding distortion, and "Held" rocks with an echo-chamber beat that wants to groove as hard as "When the Levee Breaks."
But the catchiest thing here is "Hit the Ground Running," a two-chord Velvets rave-up, augmented by blues licks and a chorus of chirping children. The kids echo Callahan as he rambles, and their bratty, almost bad-ass playground banter clashes wonderfully with his characteristically dry mumble--as if they're singing while sticking out their tongues at the old moper pose our hero has been striking for years. "I had to leave the country, though there were some nice folks there," he sings, before going on to suggest that those nice folks he met grew tired of an outsider who could only "tell the same story over and over again." The joke, of course, is that telling the same story is what he does best, and it's Callahan and O'Rourke's ingenious retellings that make Knock Knock the best Smog record yet.