With his sardonic sense of humour still intact, Jim O’Rourke: our ubiquitous (and self-deprecating) composer-at-large takes us back to the future with his latest batch of Old News (EDITIONS MEGO OLD NEWS #9) – the ninth in a series collecting his long out-of-print electroacoustic obscurities – with a recording that dates all the way back to 2013. Each of the four side-long pieces constitutes one of ‘Four Endings’, or perhaps a quarter of one extended ambient/electronic composition bearing that name. Being another product of O’Rourke’s Steamroom, a home studio so prolific it has its own, rapidly swelling Bandcamp page, long-term listeners will know what to expect, though one might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the redundancy – wilful or otherwise – of the ‘Old News’ sobriquet, when presented with so familiar a format. Such consistency is striking in a career defined so often by an attitude of defiance towards musical predictability through the use of stillborn musical gestures. As he said of his first brise-glace record, When in Vanitas… (1994) ‘continuous frustration is the main point’.
While we cannot report any such response here, certain is it that O’Rourke’s tape compositions have inadvertently had this effect on some fans, mainly those who arrived via ‘pop’ records such as Eureka, and while The Visitor (2009) – the most recent in that loose ‘series’ – flourished with melodic episodes that ended abruptly, so seemingly ensconced is he in his many musical environments that thwarted gratification would no longer seem to be his prime motive. If anything, ‘Four Endings’ has been conceived and realised as an immersive experience, which by avoiding the more static and agitated extremes of this series, arrives as the most balanced chapter thus far. Naturally, for this reason there’s no particular reason why anyone should need this record 1 (though – as Thomas Shrubsole has pointed out – the series’ uniform sleeve design could instigate a certain amount of fervour among collectors) – but, as many Bandcamp followers know, O’Rourke’s products are at the very least reliable.
Which is certainly the case here: the four sections seamlessly blend synthesizer, field recordings, distortion and drones of spectral splendour with a master’s lightness-of-touch. What we hear is far more eventful than the barely audible Old News #8; and it is more restrained, beatific and up-to-date than the (more) vintage ‘concrète’ of the previous three volumes. A milder dynamic range defines the first part of the set: Part 1 binding several processed field recordings with spider silk-thin drone, which should soothe fans and newcomers alike. In Part 2 we blindly stumble into a deep, winding cavern, our ears graced by far off suggestions of celestial symphonies, running water and a swarm of electrical insects. The remainder of the album – a kaleidoscopic aside or two excluded – describes the progress towards a blissful ascent with wave upon wave of thermal harmonics. One might argue that this is the most thoroughly realised entry in the Old News series thus far, and therefore (paradoxically) the best point of entry for those bewildered by the quantity on offer. Which raises a final question: Do the titular ‘Endings’ signal the final destination of this concern, or is Jim just having us on again?
- Nonetheless, as one who has yet to shed the collector’s urges, I for one would appreciate reissues of his pre-vinyl Old News chapters. ↩