Review Summary: A singular album in the primitive guitar canon as challenging as it is splendid.
Roughly a year ago, my longtime friend and I played our first open mic night together. Our set consisted entirely of primitive guitar pieces, and later that night we got obliterated on the cheapest whiskey I’ve yet to purchase.
We got to discussing the nature of acoustic guitar-based music when my companion made the assertion that the guitar was capable of conveying infinite musical possibilities, and that all other forms of music were limited by comparison. I countered that, though the guitar is certainly an instrument open to interpretation, surely it would fall short trying to convey the violence of an artist like Brian Chippendale, or the fluctuating textures cast about by Sun Araw.
Though my friend pulled examples of guitarists that he felt explored the same worlds as artists that I mentioned, the album that kept getting danced around was Jim O’Rourke’s ultimate love letter to the Takoma collective, “Bad Timing.” A song cycle comprised of four 10-minute pieces, it stands as a singular entry in the long-standing tradition of guitar records, its precious arrangements providing a peculiar supplement to the same coming-of-age story O’Rourke has told time and time again.
There’s a curiosity pervading O’Rourke’s work, and from the innocent melody that opens “There’s Hell in Hello But More in Goodbye,” O’Rourke sets up an album that manages to age as it progresses. The unsure plucking of “There’s Hell in Hello” gives way to the first of several extended ambient sequences, an endlessly thumbed G holding down a silver lining of harmonics and slowly building organs.
It’s the second track that stands out the most among the suite, though. Opening with its immediately recognizable bluesy key change, “94 the Long Way” grows from a tumbleweed rolling down the great American thoroughfare into the grandest coming-home parade this side of “Paprika.” Piling slides and brass horns on top of each other, “94 the Long Way” takes off like some falcon soaring higher and higher through the clouds until it reaches just the most gorgeous climax. Every second of the song feels intensely calculated, yet breathes completely on its own.
After the optimism of the first two tracks, pensiveness dominates the closing side of the album. The creaky title track presents what might be the most hummable of O’Rourke’s melodies on “Bad Timing,” his accidentals and completely random tempos sounding essential to the ethos of the music. Following an extended pre-Sufjan drone of jingles, O’Rourke briefly turns into Kevin Shields for the final movement of the album. After the blaring intro, O’Rourke’s now-twangy guitar jumps back and forth between wilting progressions and aggressive stabs at life before its jarring bridge marches in. Whether the synthetic strings and cartoon-like trombones stand for some bizarre late-life crisis or perhaps a delayed epiphany is for only O’Rourke to know, but as “Happy Trails” fades, it feels as if the journey into the forest is only just being written.
When it comes to “Bad Timing,” my friend and I both agree completely that it’s nothing short of an opus. Throughout the entire album, O’Rourke’s six-string is constantly the central figure, even when significant chunks of playtime are devoted to more colorful and abstract passages. O’Rourke acknowledges the profoundness of the guitar’s abilities with melody and rhythm without ever being limited by the instrument. He welcomes the guitar’s friends and cousins into the mix, creating a singular identity for the album while always continuing the traditions set before him. When questioned whether or not it’s possible to express the range of human emotion with just a guitar, Jim O’Rourke dug deep within his own passion for simple, touching melodies, alongside his fascination with extravagant arrangements and experiments, and found a gray area instead of a direct answer. And as with all things in life that don’t have a numerical equivalent, that grey area is closer to the truth than any one school of thought could ever be.
(Originally written for CU Independent, some wording altered. http://www.cuindependent.com/)