31 May 2002: Michigan Theater Ann Arbor, Michigan
nless you’ve been closed off in a media isolation chamber lately, you’ve probably heard of Pete Yorn. The 27-year-old Yorn is, along with Ryan Adams, the American male singer-songwriter flavor of the week, widely acclaimed for last year’s musicforthemorningafter, his first released album, and hailed in an endless series of write-ups as the next something, next Jeff Buckley, next Jackson Browne, next (fellow New Jersey native) Bruce Springsteen. Pete Yorn has a lot going for him musically: a knack for writing relationship-gone-wrong songs, multi-instrument prowess, a seductively world-weary singing voice, and an excellent choice of influences ranging from Pavement to Neil Young to The Cure.
It’s what Pete Yorn has going for him non-musically, however, that has been so instrumental in his success thus far: an inexhaustible hype machine commanded by his entertainment agent brother Rick, a long-time business associate of Hollywood mega-power broker Michael Ovitz. The promotional strategy for Yorn has so far been an all-out assault on all segments of the music consumer market. Already in his brief public career he has appeared on multiple movie and TV soundtracks including Bandits, Orange County, and Dawson’s Creek. He’s scored the Farrelly Brothers’ Me, Myself and Irene. He’s been romantically linked with Minnie Driver and serial groupie Winona Ryder. He’s worked with Liz Phair and R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck. He’s toured with more well-known acts than you can shake a stick at—Weezer, Matchbox 20, David Bowie, Blues Traveler, Elbow, Sloan, Sunny Day Real Estate, Train, to name just a few—whether his style and potential fan base meshes with theirs or not. And, not to leave any stone unturned, the surfeit of glamour shots of the scruffy boy-next-door-faced Yorn in circulation suggest that he’s been positioned as the logical next pinup idol for the set who’ve outgrown *NSYNC and find Eminem a little too scary and Rivers Cuomo not hunky enough.
Your typical struggling rocker doesn’t get this kind of exposure on the basis of one release, well-received or not (well, except maybe for the Winona bedpost notch), so it seems a perfectly reasonable to conclude that Yorn’s early mainstream success has more than a little to do with reaping the benefits of being incredibly well-connected. Suspiciously, Yorn’s publicity instead seeks to portray him as the protagonist in a “poor boy comes to the big city with nothing and makes good” story. Unfortunately, since, in this case, the story involves the “poor” boy getting tapped to score a Jim Carrey movie within months of his arrival in Los Angeles, landing a major label tryout without releasing even so much as a single on an indie, and having his first album produced by Don Fleming and his second by Brad Wood, the fairy tale doesn’t really ring true. It’s this kind of contempt for the intelligence of the music buying public that riles a lot of people up about Pete Yorn, even those who have never heard his music, and causes them to dismiss him as nothing more than the beneficiary of good old-fashioned nepotism.
Sadly, if his performance in Ann Arbor, Michigan in late May was any indication, Yorn’s ho hum live act does him little service in his quest to prove his “Pete Yawn” detractors wrong. In its current incarnation it’s virtually indistinguishable from that of just about any other middle of the road male rock act, more suited to Bryan Adams than the next alternative rock idol. From the dull “let me introduce the band” and “you guys are really cool” patter to the endless plugging of album tracks, from the fog machine to the spotlight backlighting him from behind on the darkened stage a la U2 circa Rattle and Hum, right now there’s nothing about Pete Yorn live that gives any indication that he knows how to engage a concert audience in any language other than that of rock and roll cliches. Ironically, the band that was originally supposed to open for him at the Ann Arbor show was idol rock idols Guided by Voices, whose manic frontman Robert Pollard takes those cliches and completely subverts them by imbuing them with an almost comic intensity. Guided by Voices pulled out of their opening slot when Pollard hurt his back (probably doing one of his trademark high kicks), which is a real shame since young Pete definitely stand to take a page from the old master.
Just a sampling of the questions inspired by his frustrating live show: If, as he claims in interviews, he’s been tirelessly working the club circuit for more than four years honing material and building up grassroots support, not to mention having another whole album in the can, why does he play songs from musicforthemorningafter and the same four or five covers almost exclusively during his current tour? Why does “the next Jeff Buckley” have so many Abercrombie and Fitch teen set fans (including a row of girls wearing pink tie-dyed shirts with their first names emblazoned on the back on the night I saw him) this early in his career? How can the same man who wrote such perceptive relationship songs as “Just Another” and “EZ” be so completely clueless and dull when it comes to interacting with a mostly female concert audience? And why does he still do such a truly awful version of the Smiths’ “Panic” (Note to Pete: “There’s panic on the streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan,” audience-pleasing or not, is a thoroughly embarrassing embellishment on the original)?
The easy answer to these questions is that Yorn really is a slickly packaged product, following someone else’s prescription for success and given very little free rein to do anything other than what people expect. My more hopeful answer is that Yorn is still young, wasn’t completely prepared for the level of success he’s achieved over the last year, and is still struggling to develop the public persona to match his more mature songwriting skills. Here’s hoping that he learns to gets out from behind his management team’s publicity strategy soon and develops a live show that lives up to the promise of musicforthemorningafter. And that he uses his connections to get Morrissey and Johnny Marr on the horn and adequately apologize for that whole “Panic” fiasco.
// Notes from the Road
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