Jack O’Rourke is a hidden gem from Ireland, awaiting to capture your ears and imagination. Stellar songwriting with a voice to live for.
Release Date: 5th November 2021
Label: Self-released (Bandcamp)
Is it me or does Ireland seem a whole lot further away than it ever used to be? Whilst of course it is, it feels ever more like another country, as the twin “blessings” of Brexit and covid widen ever widen the distance between us. Well, that’s my reason for being so tardy in drawing attention to this newish name, the latest in a long list of Irish troubadours, with a gift for melody and a way with words, beguiling and bonny in both aspects.
Already, it seems, a bit of a star in his homeland, having made quite a splash with his 2015 song, Silence, a song about and for the momentous Irish marriage equality referendum, which later won him the prestigious Nashville Songwriting Competition. Yup, the Nashville, Music City USA, so no small beer. Appearances on the Irish music concert series, Other Voices, followed in 2019, with another well received song, New Day, a collaboration with electronica artist Kormac, adding further to his acclaim. This year sees this, his second full length outing, Dreamcatcher having dropped in 2016, and which contained Silence, the song. Preceded by three of the contributory songs appearing as singles, the airplay these received guaranteed some anticipation for this release.
Already available for a month or so, this record is more of a poorly kept UK secret than it deserves, warranting far greater recognition over here, and allowing O’Rourke to join the ranks of similar artists, Villagers, Glen Hansard, Damien Rice, strong and sensitive performers all, and unafraid of their emotions.
With his chosen instrument the piano, the songs are framed thereby, his voice a dark brown tool that carries a warmth and sincerity. Other instrumentation is understated, predominantly the guitar, cello and fiddle of, respectively, Hugh Dillon, Aisling Fitzpatrick and Clare Sands, with members of Ireland’s Crash Ensemble adding further stringed textures elsewhere. Largely recorded live, at the historic Triskel Christchurch, in Cork, O’Rourke playing a 200 year old grand piano, the depth and breadth of sound is astonishing, captured masterfully by producer, David Ryan, more usually O’Rourke’s drummer, that role supernumerary to this body of songs.
Let’s listen. Opening track, The Parting, sets the tone immediately and incisively. Quivers of the strings flicker over his baritone voice and the chiming resonance of the piano, a perfect blend of dark and light. A mournfully hopeful song that delineate the end of a relationship, the imagery is succinct and apt: “falling from an aldar tree, bursting in the air with pollen and promise and memory.” Patsy Cline, one of the earlier singles, follows, another song of loss, using the metaphor of the country singer triggering similar emotions. The Crash Ensemble string section cradle the bittersweet words gloriously, double tracked vocals adding to the overall sweeping mood. Another single, the concurrently released Sea Swimming follows, and is a beauty. An ode to making “a beeline to the brine“, the melody haunts, the lyrics dancing through the waves evocatively. If you don’t immediately play this twice, you have no heart.
A change in mood next, with the soulful vocals of Bloom Like Orchids, a stark ballad, with a chorale of Jacks keening forcefully in the background, reminiscent, a little, of the Christians, with distorted strings cascading in and out. High C, a solo piece then dips a bit, at least for me, smacking overmuch of Broadway musical, maybe more a reflection of my tastes than the music, although the D-I-S-C-O of the piano motif is surely deliberate. Strange Bird, whilst ostensibly similar territory, by the addition of the returning strings, returns to the earlier quality, with echoes of Steve Winwood, at his most spiritual, in the vocal refrain. A song about the impact of COVID on a small town: “hugs are few here, hugs are scarce,” it is a song he is justly proud of, he aiming to display the candour of John Prine, a writer he holds strong in his heart and whose death deeply affected him. I think he succeeds. The subsequent song, Runaway Train, cleverly picks up the structure of this song, literally running away with it, a love song that careers down the tracks, yet with more grace and control than might usually be expected.
I don’t know if the germ of Opera On The Top Floor seeded from the 10,000 Maniacs/Natalie Merchant song, Verdi Cries, the title crying that out to me. However, given Status Quo get a mention in the first line, maybe not. But the mood is not dissimilar, the top floor here a metaphor more for what he is thinking, even whilst sat in the pub, friends playing the Quo on air guitars, he sensing his differences from the rest of them. It works well. I sort of guess I am expected here to make a reference to O’Rourke being gay, his press release screaming that out. My own feel is that it shouldn’t matter. I guess it might, were I. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the singles.
Coffee Song reprises the piano and string quartet of Patsy Cline, and is a song that muses on the other life of the barista at a coffee shop, with dreams “playing bass for Patti Smith” perhaps foundering on the realities of pouring coffee instead. The imagery is perfect, the song a storybook. It is a cup of joy itself. Amy dashes the hopeful wistfulness there presented, and is, I guess, a lament for the candle that was Ms. Winehouse, prematurely and, potentially, needlessly snuffed out. I wonder if it were triggered by the film of The Day She Came to Dingle, when the world lay at her feet. Ithaca allows reflection, a song of travel. Or escape. Upon which reflection comes the closer, Timshel, a brief solo piano instrumental, which seeps tones of sepia into and to end a fine record.
Whilst I cannot say every single moment of this largely excellent project grabs my full attention, most of the time it does, that enough being for it to be one of my picks of this year. The songwriting is strong and true, the presentation exquisite. Let’s get him better known this side.
Here is current single from Jack O’Rourke, Sea Swimming: