Experimentation in pop music has tended to come about in rather predictable ways. The most memorably audacious ventures in pop (brilliant or bad) have been those made by musicians—Lennon and McCartney, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Brian Eno, Radiohead—who'd first done all they thought they could within established pop idioms before moving on and out, sometimes very far out. (That isn't to say that the results of such forays are similar or unsurprising or hopelessly unsatisfying, because pop's pleasures, like those of the sonnet, derive from limits imposed and then embraced—this isn't the beginning of a rant against experimentation.) You might chart the career arc this way: 1) Desire to write and record hit songs; 2) pop success; 3) experimental phase (album or two of music notable for its abandonment of verse-chorus structure, introduction of motifs from serious or non-Western music, embrace of electronic gadgetry, and pursuit of discordance, angularity and other means to "difficulty"); 4) late synthetic return-to-basics-with-a-certain-weird-edge phase (see Abbey Road and, I could be wrong, the forthcoming Radiohead CD).
And then there is Jim O'Rourke. Somehow, O'Rourke got the whole thing backward. It would seem he'd already had it with pop music by the time he showed up with his guitar at DePaul University in the mid-1980s to study music composition; and by the time he'd graduated he was deep into Stockhausen and La Monte Young and already writing and recording the sort of ambient-noise avant-garde stuff that only gets played on very small listener-supported stations (and then only if it's past midnight and there's no pledge drive underway). But during the past five or six years O'Rourke has been more and more experimenting not with laptops or jazz improvisation or Minimalist musical tropes but with basic American pop songs—as a producer and mixer (most notably of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), as a band member (on Sonic Youth's recent Murray Street, the noisemeisters' most listener-friendly album in years), and as a sort of singer-songwriter on several solo CDs (his 1999 Eureka is a gem).
Now, with Wilco front-man Jeff Tweedy and longtime Chicago indie-scene drummer Glenn Kotche (who now too is a member of Wilco),O'Rourke has embarked on a collaborative side project called Loose Fur. Their first, eponymously titled CD, an LP by vinyl-days standards but closer to an EP by today's, is out this week, and as throw-away loose and slight as it might seem on first listening, it's actually as intricate and intelligent—that is, deceptively laid back and sneakily dark—a recording of spare folk-rock as has been made in some time. O'Rourke, who plays guitars and keyboards on Loose Fur and trades off on the vocals with Tweedy (all the songs are credited to the band), has moved on to pop but in some sense left little of his purely vanguard years behind: He's arrived at that late synthetic phase, you might say, from the other direction.
Loose Fur, on which O'Rourke did the mixing too, begins with 15 seconds of soft electronic buzz, which in turn leads into a half-minute or so of a gentle fuzz-guitar drone over a midtempo tom-tom beat before Jeff Tweedy's voice enters. This isn't your father's Eagles' LP or your older cousin's R.E.M. Fans of O'Rourke will undoubtedly register an echo of the opening of Eureka: the warm nestling of traditional instrumentation and electronics; the pronounced sense of the presence of human hands (whether finger-picking or drumming) set against the quiet of the machine-generated noise; the slow weaving of musical texture. If instrumental passages like these function as overtures to where the respective records are heading, they are also reminders of the music that helped turn O'Rourke away from "advanced" composition and jazz improv and toward pop. In the mid-'90s he fell hard for what he has called Second Generation Americana—the music in particular of three classical-meets-roots composers, Charles Ives (who combined Modernism and parade marches), John Fahey (who augmented his blues-suffused picking with found sounds), and Van Dyke Parks (who fused symphonylike instrumental coloration with American-songbook melodies). In their work he recognized the vast possibility and sheer weirdness of Americana. He also no doubt understood, if he hadn't before, that there is nothing meager or "primitive" about the homespun. "So Long," which he and Tweedy and Kotche build atop a mean junkyard blues is, like a great piece of folk art, all the more strange and original for having about it an air of the unschooled and accidental.
"So Long" is a kind of break-up song—a man saying goodbye to hope and perhaps his sense of self. The other song on Loose Fur that O'Rourke sings lead vocals on is in the same vein, a warning to never connect. O'Rourke's turn toward pop meant he'd have to make a go at singing and lyric-writing, and he has found a voice: one that ranges from gloomy to gloomier. There's a tenderness to the quiet straining of his tenor (he can sound a lot like Todd Rundgren did in the '70s) but his lyrics—full of word-play, like those Van Dyke Parks wrote for Brian Wilson in songs like "Heroes and Villains"—more often than not reveal a cold, malevolent anger. (Not that Tweedy's lyrics are warm and approachable—it could be a Chicago guy thing.) On the title track of O'Rourke's 1999 EP, Halfway to a Threeway, over folky guitar picking and accompanied by sunny sing-along dah dah dahs, the narrator maliciously promises his comatose wife that his murder of her, when he gets around to it, will be " sweet and short/ when I pull off your life support." Funny, maybe. Not out of character, for sure. O'Rourke's most recent solo album, 2001's Insignificance, is a tapestry not only of guitars and percussion but of cruelty, self-pity, and revenge. One track, "Get a Room," sounds like a variation on a '70s Fleetwood Mac groove—but then can you imagine Lindsey Buckingham singing, " I'd like nothing more to do/ than to watch the desperation on your face"?
O'Rourke's words, like his music, only seem to promise easy listening. Whether you are a pop guy who decides to experiment or an experimenter who gets interested in pop, you are going to end up with pop that is "pop." O'Rourke makes music that gets played only on college radio stations, and Loose Fur, dark and weird, is not a departure. But then, what could be more apt right now? In an America hunkered down, pensive, twitchy, and sore but not sure what at, Loose Fur has got the mood just right. It's Americana with no blue skies in the forecast.