Expecting one album, Omar Rodríguez-López decided to sideswipe me with three, which was more than enough to traverse the wide spectrum of contemporary music and re-evaluate expectations for the highly prolific artist.
I imagine that Omar Rodríguez-López is someone who doesn’t need much of an intro; he may, in fact, be the sole reason you clicked on this review. For those that aren’t as aware though, ORL was integral for a lot of the music of our generation. In the aughts, he pervaded the music tastes of me and many of my friends one way or another, whether with the progressive and psyched-out The Mars Volta, post-hardcore laureates At The Drive-In, or maybe another project from his ever-growing solo career. Seriously, you usually only see a discography this big attributed to one name when it’s a jazz artist from the ’60s or something, when they released multiple LPs in a year with ease. Did they never sleep back then or just do a lot of cocaine? Who knows.
Anyway, ORL is The Dude™, and I am forever indebted to him for his work in The Mars Volta alone. I didn’t keep up with his solo stuff much because of, well, the reasons I just mentioned – couldn’t keep up. This time though? I wanted to dig in. I signed up to review The Clouds Hill Tapes, Pt. I, to be released on July 24 it said. I assumed future parts would follow later in the year. After listening to the album a couple times and thinking about what I wanted to say about it here, I found out that not only was Part I already out, but so was Part II. What? Looking further, all three parts are to be released on a triple LP bundle on July 24, but seem to be going for a staggered release digitally. Oh… okay.
Guess he got me.
Well, it would be a little weird to just review Part I only at this point, so here we go, we’re gonna talk about all parts. First, I do want to stress and maybe set an expectation for y’all that this is pretty different from the ORL that I, and likely you, know. It’s rock, but like a diet variety if you use The Mars Volta‘s eclectic sound as any sort of benchmark, less interested in illusory overload of the senses and more in the emotionality of it all. It’s also not entirely new material for ORL – in fact, all of these songs originate from one of his previous solo albums, chiefly Umbrella Mistress and Roman Lips, from which six and three tracks are redone, respectively. To be honest though, this was almost all new to me due to my unfamiliarity, and even if you worship the man, it’s still worth listening to these iterations as they’ve gotten a considerable overhaul with a newer line-up and polish.
For one, the singer on these tapes, Virginia García Alves, fits the material better to me. Although there’s a strong rock presence here from everyone involved, it’s also got a loungy feel. Alves’ voice is remarkably suited for that kind of environment. Take a peek at “Bitter Tears” from Part I for a good example. She’s capable of getting quite sultry with her voice, and the jazzy keys are the icing on the damn cake. This is kind of the theme, or at least common tone, throughout much of Part I, the longest and most bombastic on offer. Even when things are slower like “Houses Full Of Hurt”, the percussion knocks formidably as the vocals don’t ease in their projection and strength. For those that like it, “Arcos Del Amor” (‘arches of love‘) is a Spanish language burner of a track with quick drums and wavy guitars and synths.
Part II has more of an emotional touch. A cut like “Diamond Teeth” goes full-on ballad with just piano, light guitar, and Alves’ voice belting out some heartfelt lines. There’s a couple plucky piano solos, but it’s mostly carried by sincere craft and sensitivity. “Vanishing Tide” is equally sensitive, making adequate room for the piano to provide all the melody needed for the vocals to ice skate on. There’s guitar, but it is very quaintly utilized here. If Part I was a little too energetic for your liking, you’d do well to start here with Part II – it’s the heart of the tapes for sure, resembling more of lonely ship of soulful music than a skybound alternate rock dreadnought from the past like Part I leaned toward.
Part III gets more conventional, but still has a quirk to it that carries it above the chaff. Think The Prize Fighter Inferno and you’re close – more electronics, a focus on simple yet pervasive melodies, etc. There’s a common misconception with progressive or avant-garde crowds that simple equals bad, but allow me to present you the rolled-up newspaper with which to gently boop your snoot: “Winter’s Gone”. True, it doesn’t sound like it should belong, but there’s touches where you get a little scraping of weirdness that delineates a particular approach to pop sound that’s often celebrated as fresh and new – this is no different, though less extravagant and opulent than what you’d find on pop’s outskirts. Between the rampant bass on “It All Begins With You” and the trappy production foundation on “Born To Be A Nobody”, there’s a lot to like on Part III for the more genre stalwart music lovers out there.
Although I love the gentler side of what ORL‘s crew achieved here, I do also gravitate to the more boisterous side as a fan from the past. The dial here is wide, stretching from contemporary soul-esque ballad to entropic punk. In all honesty, much of these tapes caught me off guard. All I had to go off of was Omar Rodríguez-López‘s name. That means something to me, but that meaning certainly isn’t comprehensive of what he’s capable of. If anything, that speaks to his artistry more since he’s not one to just do one style, or rehash his (critically acclaimed, popular) past work. He’s the type to make music just because he wanted to, for himself and perhaps a fulfillment you can’t get any other way. Kind of how I write all these reviews about other people’s work. I’m not trying to say that I’m the Omar Rodríguez-López of music reviews, but I think we may see more eye to eye than I realized was ever possible, and it’s all thanks to this Trojan horse-esque project that I ended up enjoying a lot more than I thought I would.
Where a lot of older music that Omar Rodríguez-López made in our youth was chaotic, matching the hormonal tornadoes mangling our bodies and minds, this represents a different, more mature spirit and growth. Not subdued, but measured; calculated, not understated. A lot of this is due to the fantastic musicians that Omar got on his team for these tapes, but part of being a top-notch musician and composer yourself is knowing who to surround yourself with. In these regards, The Clouds Hill Tapes win. They’re solid rock and pop entries that ride a midline that artists tend to shy away from in pursuit of extremes.