Pete Yorn is so free of pretension, you wonder how he stands up in the rock and roll business. He accomplishes this lack of affectation without relying on self-deprecation or humility. He’s not trying to be down to earth, or convince you to invite him in for a bowl of soup. It’s just the way he is. Somehow, listening to Pete Yorn’s ordinary guitar and husky growl is extraordinary. Sure, he writes and sings about the same topics that a lot of music-makers do: love, lost love, love to come. But you listen to his music, and think “this is what would have happened if Eddie Vedder wandered to Los Angeles and launched a solo career instead of departing for the Pacific Northwest”.
Yorn makes a solid argument against the obsolescence of the singer-songwriter as an artist with lyrics that everyone can relate to and the grittiness scraped from many late nights that turned into early mornings. Many rock fans believe that the supply of quality songwriters has dwindled in the past decade or two. While there’s no shortage of musicians who aspire to follow in the footsteps of Bob Dylan, there aren’t many with the vision and voice to catch the public’s attention or stay in the spotlight for long. So instead, these contemporary poets mine their hearts, wringing themselves out in the studio for producers. In some ways the genre is beginning to sound just as redundant as Top-40 pop singles. To differentiate yourself, you need to bring to the table an impassioned delivery, a sweet voice, and interesting arrangements. A quick wit helps, but it’s just not enough. Unless you’re really quick. Elliott Smith and Rufus Wainwright are two great exceptions that come to mind. Yorn represents another faction. The steady, blue collar singer who isn’t afraid to drop a power chord into the mix.
Yorn’s muscular 2001 debut album Musicforthemorningafter, featuring the radio friendly pop song “Life on a Chain”, earned the singer-songwriter a broad fan base with just these qualities. Here was a singer-songwriter who you could listen to standing up. As a solo artist, he’s trying harder to be fellow Garden State alumni Bruce Springsteen than Bob Dylan. So indie rockers and emo kids alike grabbed on to his high-energy style. Meanwhile Yorn toured relentlessly in support of the album, and generated high hopes for fine things to come.
Yorn often states in interviews that the magic of recording and touring still hasn’t worn off for him. At each tour stop, he gets out of the bus and has his picture taken, as if to prove that it’s all really happening. Perhaps that’s because he hasn’t been at it for very long. Making his way out to Los Angeles from New Jersey after winning a local music contest, Yorn gigged around town and attracted a cult following. He did a bit of work writing music for television and film, including recording a song for Dawson’s Creek and scoring the Farrelly Brothers comedy Me, Myself and Irene. But Yorn got his real break when he happened to be at the right place at the right time, and spontaneously performed an acoustic version of his original composition “Life on a Chain” for a Columbia Records A&R rep.
For someone without a shred of self-importance, it’s important to note that Yorn is also something of a perfectionist. He played all of the instruments on Musicforthemorningafter, and set the bar unusually high for his follow-up effort. Two years later, we have Day I Forgot, a tight set of 13 songs which he co-produced with R. Walt Vincent and Scott Litt, who has worked with everyone from Carly Simon to R.E.M. The album is much more conservative than Yorn’s debut, and in many ways more ordinary. This is not to say that it’s a bad record. Yorn still lends a modest feel to a record that somehow doesn’t sound like it’s holding anything back. He says he came up with the title when he started thinking about all of the great memories that get lost in the cracks and crevices of the mind. A song is usually what pulls it all back, and he decided to make a record out of the idea.
Day I Forgot begins with a short intro, recorded with an audio quality that is similar to “Life on a Chain”. This brief, acoustic guitar foundation serves two purposes. First, its similarity to Yorn’s most popular single functions as a reminder of what his fans appreciated about his music in the first place. Next, it acts as a juxtaposition to the energy of the proceeding song, and the rest of the album. From this introduction, he promptly accelerates into “Come Back Home”. It’s fuzzy guitars downshift from blurry to crisp with the help of a great backbeat and Yorn’s yearning voice. It’s no accident that this echoes ultimate-bar-band-era Bruce Springsteen. The album speeds along into the “Crystal Village”, with its cheddar cheese lyrics and powerful drum and guitar interchange.
From here, we’re left with a smorgasbord of songs that are mostly decent in the same way, with a few exceptions that are outstanding. Tracks like “Carlos (Don’t Let it Go to Your Head)” and “All At Once” aren’t bad tunes per say. But they’re cut from the same clothe as one another, and Yorn didn’t even bother to change the buttons. He’s way too young to be imitating himself, and there are enough solid tracks on this album to cause fans to realize that he’s still capable of writing a catchy pop song with a little depth to it. But either someone talked Yorn into playing it safe on Day I Forgot, or he really, really likes the sound and feel of songs like “Pass Me By”. Granted, it’s a good formula, and could be repeated once or twice. But not more than that.
It’s particularly difficult to understand the safe songs when there are examples of fine work on the album. “Committed” is a great example of this. Here we have Yorn’s gruff voice at its sweetest. He shows off his clever songwriting on a composition that’s well produced and fun to listen to. The producer tweaks this piece just enough to make it interesting. It’s not quite electronic, but not a straight-up rock song either. R. Walt Vincent adds a harmonica digression in the middle of this, making it one of the CDs stand out tracks.
“When You See the Light” also differentiates itself from the production work of the rest of the album. It’s instrumental and percussion arrangement is half way between high-octane and his lulling, melodic pieces. Yorn’s voice comes out as Whiskeytown-era Ryan Adams, as he provides depth and feel to some rather ambiguous lyrics. Yorn has a talent for unintentionally imitating a variety of rock stars. “Man in Uniform” sounds strikingly similar to Eddie Vedder’s rendition of “Around the Bend” from the Pearl Jam album Yield. Or “Long Way Down”, which could easily pass for a Paul Westerberg song.
Day I Forgot ends with the sound of Yorn alone in a room. The track is the thirteenth, and final on Day I Forgot. But it’s listed as number 14, much like a building with a superstitiously unmarked floor. “So Much Work” is as straight-forward lyrically as Yorn gets. The simplicity at the end of the album is telling for a man who rose from coffeehouse notoriety to major stardom in such a short period of time. A toy xylophone is the most complex thing about “So Much Work”. Maybe he’s worn out, and maybe he’s ready to just move past his sophomore effort as quickly as he can. Good or bad luck notwithstanding, we haven’t heard the last from Pete Yorn. He’s still finding his stride. He’s just not thinking too hard about it.
// Notes from the Road
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