[13 June 2013]
With The Olms, Pete Yorn is retracing his own footprints. In 2009, he made a very underrated LP, Break Up, with actress/singer Scarlett Johansson. The project’s obvious progenitors, ones admitted by Yorn himself, are the late ‘60’s duet albums by Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg. Though unabashedly contemporary in its indie indifference and Starbucks crowd appeal, Break Up is an album drenched in all things retro: the production relaxes the already relaxed music, the vocals are often filtered through old-timey telephone effects, and, hell, they threw in a cover of an overlooked Chris Bell track (“I Am the Cosmos”) for good measure. Trifling though the experiment—at 29 minutes, deep exploration was never likely the goal—painted Yorn and Johansson as apt and at times compelling as a duo. Yorn, who still has yet to top his Elliot Smith-indebted debut Musicforthemorningafter, penned some of his best songs since that LP for Break Up, including “I Don’t Know What to Do” and “Relator”.
Now that the calendar has flipped ahead four years, Yorn has found himself another person to revisit the sounds of the past with, this time the commercial artist and musician J.D. King in a project called The Olms. The instrumentation here is mostly the same—breezily strummed acoustic guitars, vintage piano, non-fussy drum arrangements—but in lieu of Break Up’s Parisian lilt is a countrified, California rock vibe that evokes a road trip through wind-blown deserts. The Eagles, whose “Take it Easy” is more or less the philosophical backbone of this LP, are a definite influence, along with the early work of Warren Zevon. Like Break Up, all of the source material is one hundred percent evident from the get-go; everyone involved in the making of this album did their homework. King is especially committed to the duo’s young-old-soul ethos, telling Rolling Stone, “Part of me says, like a total purist, that after 1932 they should have completely stopped improving their production because it was so amazing at the time”. The Olms is as pure a statement of such hipster thought as there could be.
But despite the fact that Yorn and King know and play their reference points well, it’s hard to shake the overall feeling of sameness that plagues this LP. Lead single “Wanna Feel It” borrows vocal lines and melodies from Break Up. “Someone Else’s Girl” spells out all the problems of unrequited love that Yorn has already spent much of his career delineating. Opener “On the Line” underutilizes a fairly authentic vocal turn from King through its predictable instrumentation. The latter two cuts, which start off the LP, are light enough that leaving them on in the background won’t do much harm; the hooks might even bounce around in your head for awhile. What this means for the rest of the tracks, however, is that any interest one is likely to have with this material will be cashed out earlier on, which leaves the back half of the album to slog to its short conclusion. Ease may be a part of The Olms’ appeal, but it’s also in large part what makes it so inconsequential. Yorn and King have made the record they set out to make; it sounds exactly how they wanted it to. But on Break Up, Yorn at least injected some personality into the Gainsbourg-esque formula he set out for himself and Johansson—of course, having an A-list celebrity probably gave him a boost that he doesn’t have here. The Olms by contrast is the equivalent of Yorn and King throwing a California rock theme party sponsored by Urban Outfitters: young, vintage-minded people in functional, aged-looking new clothes that fit the part and get their basic job done well enough. But come the next day, it’s the ephemerality of it all that lingers.