Aidan O’Rourke – 365: Volume One (feat. Kit Downes)
Reveal Records – 25 May 2018
Up to now, Aidan O’Rourke is still best known as the fiddle player and co-founder of Lau, probably the most avant-garde and dynamic experimental folk supergroup of our time, he was also part of the short-lived but ace traditional quartet Kan, with Flook’s virtuoso flautist Brian Finnegan. With this new release, Aidan will have eyebrows raising yet again, for 365 is a huge undertaking by an obviously dedicated artist determined to realise an ambitious vision. In many ways, it is an album very much unlike anything either of the above groups would produce, but it shares, like his superbly original 2013 Hotline album does, the sky-high quality and strong sense of artistic progression of the other outfits’ material. 365 is a project inspired by James Robertson‘s short story anthology of the same name, containing 365 stories of 365 words written one per day for a year. It’s quite a feat and, certainly for O’Rourke, quite an inspiration, as it pushed him (against Robertson’s ‘don’t do it!’ advice) to write a tune a day for a year, the highlights of which will make up this double-disc set coupled with volume 2, which will be released next year.
Even once the integral context is digested, 365 is at once a warmly familiar Aidan O’Rourke work and something altogether sonically novel. Aidan has been working with piano and harmonium player Kit Downes in a duo for a while now and it’s just the two players who appear on this part anthology, but O’Rourke’s innately Scottish traditional musical backbone crossed with Downes’s jazz influences and the composure of Maurice Ravel, who he grew up hearing and playing, merge perfectly and form a chamber set of beautifully observed and played pieces. In fact, the music immediately brought to mind Alisdair Roberts’s new What News album, which also chooses to utilise a small arsenal of instruments to great effect. Like that album, this is a sound that, rather than bursting from the speaker, works its considerable magic slowly and inexorably.
Possibly the most important detail to check about 365 is that both O’Rourke and Downes are both blessed with the ability to produce real tunes and melodies; it enables both musicians to take us through these minimalist nuggets and provide multiple textures and ideas through the use of very few tools but a seemingly endless box of subtle musical tricks. Take the splendidly nervous ‘Do people still do this?‘, with a gently accelerating violin line joined by the harmonium that clowns behind it and creates a soundscape that could accompany a silent film. Equally effective is ‘It was the savage boys watching from the cliffs‘, which creates a sense of unease and eeriness through a slightly manic double string bow line and darkly chordal keys. But it’s the cohesiveness across the range that is most impressive about the whole thing, highlighted in music like the sturdy fiddle and harmonium refrain carrying ‘The room in the darkness‘, leading into the melancholy and restrained beauty of ‘You forget more than you retain, and that’s the truth‘. The violin in the foreground with Downes’s subtle playing evokes an almost bullying top heavy exchange where the one is quite powerless against the other.
Where the first disc closes with two quite mournful pieces, having final track ‘Awake isn’t good‘, a longer and slower track of contemplative piano and violin following on from ‘You forget more than you retain, and that’s the truth‘, the second half feels altogether more optimistic. ‘Lying awake in the middle of the night‘ contains a more traditional fiddle piece that is almost a dance tune, backed by an innocently tinkering piano line, while elsewhere the titles get jauntier, with music to match, particularly on tracks like ‘I used not to be able to read on buses‘, with O’Rourke’s playful strings creating landscapes for the arpeggiating piano to dance around and enjoy. It’s a very pretty song that lets the light in and allows for pieces like ‘The phone rang as she’d got the children to the table‘ to slowly breathe deeply and allow some darkness back in. But that’s okay because set highlight ‘They were passing the end of a particular street‘ acts as the bread with ‘I used not to be able to read on buses‘ and uses plucked strings and light piano to build us a gorgeous small romance.
However, as I mentioned, it’s only natural to get excited about certain pieces, but the project’s real strength lies in its cohesion. Rather than an anthology of disconnected tales, 365 is more a set of interlocked pieces, each allowing space for the previous and the one after to exist. Even touches like putting the relatively epic ‘At the end as the applause dies away and people begin to make for the exits‘ before closer ‘Now’, the old woman said, ‘before you go up there I want to introduce you to someone which is altogether smaller and slighter, seems to want to lead on to Volume 2 instead of ending here. Like Robertson’s book, this project is already a significant achievement and testament to O’Rourke’s artistic endeavour. In a similar way to any Spiro or Three Cane Whale album, or even last year’s An Idea in Everything by David Greenberger, Glenn Jones and Chris Corsano, 365 stitches together ideas and tunes inspired by various genres to create a whole tapestry to surprise and delight. The hard copy album itself is also a work of art, with beautiful images and extracts from Robertson’s book beside each of the twenty-two tracks making a satisfyingly thick set of sleeve notes that (of course) everybody should choose over a download. It’s this combination of attention to detail in every aspect, plus a great idea and considerable skill from a reliably exciting pair of musicians, that results in 365 being an excellent piece of work from the ground up that gently bewitches the listener with subtlety and pathos and lasts in the mind well after the final note has rung out.
AIDAN O’ROURKE UK TOUR WITH KIT DOWNES
Friday 13th April – Woodend Barn, Banchory *
Saturday 14th April – The Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh *
Sunday 15th April – Drygate Brewery, Glasgow *
Wednesday 18th April –Tolbooth, Stirling *
Friday 20th April – Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury
Saturday 21st April – Junction 2, Cambridge
Monday 23rd April – Nettlebed Folk Club
Tuesday 24th April – Heath Street Baptist Church, London
Thursday 26th April – Anteros Arts, Norwich
Friday 27th April – Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham
Saturday 28th April – Otley Courthouse, Otley *
Sunday 29th April – Irish Centre – Manchester *
* With Author James Robertson on these dates only
Photo Credit: Genevieve Stevenson