Thursday, January 22, 2009

Album of the Week: Jim O'Rourke- Eureka

Jim O'Rourke recently turned 40, Eureka is about to turn 10, and I had a dream a few nights ago where for some reason I was obsessed with buying another album by Gastr Del I took all of these things as signs that I ought to review this album. To be perfectly honest I hadn't listened to it--and I mean really listened to it, not 'one of the songs came up on my iTunes shuffle' listened--for probably over two years. Eureka never really comes up when I'm talking about music to people I've recently met or when I'm thinking of things to review. It's a quiet, unassuming album that usually stays in its place on my shelf, the CD case tucked between Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Smith, my eyes acknowledging its presence as I scan by but I think "nah, not today" to myself for the 600th day in a row. I don't know why this is; it's a good album. Damn good, even. But it's just not the sort of thing you find yourself reaching for when you can't decide what to listen to on the way to work or while you're home and need some background music.

Eureka is a curious, interesting little orchestral pop album. While O'Rourke's previous release, Bad Timing, had a lot of intricate acoustic guitar picking on top of some orchestrated music, it was entirely instrumental. But Eureka drops the acoustic guitar workouts, picks up the orchestral pop flag, and runs away at full speed, humming tunes to itself along the way, crafting music that often sounds like a film soundtrack when O'Rourke isn't singing. It's a fascinating album since it comes from a guy mostly known for helping birth Wilco's 'difficult' masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, mucking about with Sonic Youth for half of this decade, and producing/remixing a bunch of people. Though he's worked with a surprising number of singer/songwriter types and pop-leaning artists, I still mainly think of him as belonging to the artsy, experimental, and avant garde fringes. And it doesn't help that the cover art for Eureka is strange as all get out--it looks like something you'd expect from Xiu Xiu and not a nice, relaxing orchestral pop album...

At only 8 tracks but 43ish minutes, you have to figure that there's more going on here than just Beach Boys, Phil Spector, or Burt Bacharach-isms--though, ironically, there's a cover of Bacharach's 'Something Big', made even more ironic because it's done with absolute sincerity and is one of the album's best moments. Anyway, Eureka is for the patient music listener, which isn't to say it's 'slow.' Rather, the rewards come from listening to the whole thing and enjoying it as an entire work instead of a series of discrete songs with incessant hooks or repeated choruses. It's orchestral pop, so there are some hooks and choruses, but as I said earlier, it often sounds like soundtrack music. Just as often as it erupts into singing and lyrics, it slowly blooms into upbeat, melodic instrumental music or explores subdued moods. And I always remember the album as having way more singing than it does for some reason. That's probably because there's something very lyrical to this music at all times, the way the strings and brass are used to suggest singing, or even the way a wordless 'bah bah bah' chorus is employed on 'Please Patronise Our Sponsors.' Which is too bad, actually, because Jim O'Rourke has a surprisingly excellent and emotive voice. There's something very warm about it, and it's disappointing that the moment it gets used most is on the album closer, 'Happy Holidays', which is less than two minutes long. Ah well, there's always his songs for Loose Fu. And his other album, Insignificance, which I haven't heard.

But I digress. This is one of those albums that has just a special atmosphere to it. For me, it's evocative of that moment when the wine starts to get to you during the holidays and you suddenly feel entirely too sentimental about your past and too content with your current life. Or when you, for whatever reason, think about your current significant other and just knowing they're in your life gives you a sudden shot of magic and awe about life and love. These moments of euphoria don't last very long, but Eureka is their soundtrack. When I listen to it, words like 'pristine', 'ornate', 'meticulous', and 'romantic' come to mind. Assuming I have a wedding, I might have to insist it be played at the reception. Or in the getaway car with my bride.

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