Lacking the quirkiness and experimentation to impress indie music tastemakers
but unwilling to create Top 40 tripe, Pete Yorn isn’t ever going to enjoy
universal critical acclaim or multi-platinum album sales. But he doesn’t seem
to give a shit.
Judging by his creative fecundity over the past two years (he’s released three
albums since June ’09), his primary motivation is to follow his muse wherever
it leads, whether it’s low-key, introspective tunes, retro-inspired duets with
a Hollywood starlet, or, as is the case on his latest album, Pete Yorn,
Yorn has taken a stab at a more traditional rock sound before on 2003’s Day I Forgot, half of which was staler
than year-old potato chips. Fortunately, Pete Yorn fares better. Much better.
That’s thanks in part to Frank Black’s production. During a five-day session in
Salem, Oregon, Black distilled Yorn’s typically layered sound to guitar, bass,
and drums with Yorn and his backing band recording live, keeping the best take.
The result is Yorn’s freshest, most energetic album since the impeccable Musicforthemorningafter.
Fueled by distorted guitars, a sturdy beat, and Yorn’s urgent vocals, opener
“Precious Stone” is the sort of ragged power pop best enjoyed at a high volume.
It’s followed by the bouncy “Rock Crowd,” a thank-you to fans that contrasts
the malaise of life on the road with the joy of the transient connection forged
with an audience (“Rock crowd throw your arms around me/ I feel glad when you
all surround me/ It’s you, it’s you who grounds me/ When you’re done, put me
back where you found me), with more jubilant voices joining the chorus each
time around. Both songs pave the way for the propulsive, power chord-driven
“Velcro Shoes” (think “Closet” kicked up a notch or two). It doesn’t matter the
lyrics are an inane pastiche of childhood memories (“It’s time for lunch so
what’s to eat?/ PB and J cut up in squares of four/ A glass of milk for little
Pete/ He’s such a good boy let him have some more)-the song rocks just the
Besides the acoustic-based “Stronger Than”-a solid tune but one that would’ve
sounded more at home on Back and Fourth-the rest of the album retains the
edgier tone established on the earlier tracks, highlighted by the cool,
swaggering “The Chase” and the ‘60s pop-meets-garage rock “Sans Fear.” Even the
spare cover of Graham Parsons’s “Wheels” that closes the album has some grit,
matching Yorn’s raspy, weary vocals (made more so by the flu) with a
reverb-heavy acoustic and a gravelly electric solo.
At times the rough-hewn spontaneity permeating the record comes at the expense
of focused lyrics and fully realized songs. Whereas the lyrics of “Velcro
Shoes” are sort of endearing, “Future Life,” which compares the life Yorn has
chosen to the more conventional lifestyles of friends, is chock-full of
bromides. The frenetic “Badman” thrashes along on crunching guitars and a
tortuous bass line with Yorn screaming the not-so-subtle pick-up line chorus “I
want you on top!” It’s the hardest hitting song on the album to be sure, but it
begs for a lead guitar hook, and Yorn’s detached, half-spoken delivery in the
verses of lines like “love without the t-shirts make you sad” (maybe I misheard
something) sounds like he’s improvising place holders. But it’s “Paradise Cove
I” that proves Spartan arrangements aren’t always the best. Here in its first
incarnation the song is a monotonous throwaway track. The breezy, nuanced
version recorded a short time after for Back
and Fourth is one of the finest songs in Yorn’s catalog-though granted it
would’ve seemed out of place on Pete Yorn.
Still, a few subpar moments and inchoate ideas are a small price for the album’s
loose, spirited vibe.
Where Yorn will go from here is anyone’s guess. Given the diversity of his
three recent releases and the fact that he doesn’t have a set approach to
songwriting, he may not know himself. But as fruitful as the session with Black
was, taking another trip up to Salem
sometime wouldn’t be a bad idea.
DOWNLOAD: “Precious Stone,” “The
Chase” JASON MIDDLEKAUFF