Pete Yorn has always been one of my second-tier artist, someone whose work I like, but not enough to put into heavy rotation, unfairly dismissing him as another pretty-boy guitar-slinger songwriter.
An artist who gets plenty of critical kudos, but who never quite lit a spark under my seat, I liked some of the songs on his debut album, Musicforthemorningafter, and was intrigued by the darkness of Nightcrawler, but apparently not enough to follow his career, thus missing out on last year’s critically acclaimed companion albums, Back and Fourth (get the pun?), as well as his outing with Scarlett Johannssen on their Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot project, Break Up.
My appreciation for him has changed dramatically after listening to his forthcoming self-titled album due out on Sept 28. Produced by Frank Black on Vagrant Records, these 11 songs were actually recorded in 2008. While recording the songs for Back and Fourth in Nebraska, he got a call from Frank Black asking if he didn’t want to record some songs together. Yorn agreed.
Recorded over five days in a makeshift studio in Salem, Oregon while Yorn had the flu, the result is a rough-and-tumble, stripped-down guitar-bass-drums rock’n’roll record that is loose, spontaneous and steers clear of some of the over-preciousness of previous recordings that may have turned me off.
“Frank didn’t give a shit about getting sick, so we stayed in the flow,” Yorn said in a news release. “He has an incredible ability to distill a song down to its core.”
That is evident from the opening bars of “Precious Stone,” with its slashing Big Star-like power chords and a vocal that could have been lifted from Alex Chilton, as he sings to his lover, yelping at times: “We gotta be someplace at seven/ I know you got a dress to wear/ I found a way to live forever/ I found a place where no one cares.”
After confessing the improbable crazy feelings she inspires in him, the singer relates: “I know you know it’s going nowhere/ And I feel the hurt for miles and miles/ Cause I want to be with you forever.”
The second song, “Rock Crowd,” is a paean to the fans who fuel those live performances and a source of comfort when his personal life turns to shit. It starts off with a croaky vocal over acoustic guitar singing “Rock crowd throw your arms around me/ I feel glad when your arms surround me/ It’s you — it’s you who grounds me/ When you’re done put me back where you found me.” In each verse Yorn muses over the anxiety of performing live, and the rush of playing before a crowd, and the anticipation of picking someone up after the show over a drink. Each time the chorus comes around, it seems more raucous, more people singing and playing on it before it quietly fades out with the croaky singing and finger-picking.
“Velcro Shoes” follows, a fun, absurd little song about being a kid building treehouses and riding go-karts, with the great throwaway line “Think I’ll wear them home and then decide to rip them off and take a bath.” Go get some milk and cookies.
Yorn returns to the ambivalence explored earlier on “Precious Stone” with “Paradise Cove I” as he sings in the chorus: “I got what I wanted and it wasn’t enough/ I got what I wanted when you showed up,” and ends with an ominous chord. “Badman” is a solid rocker about a man on the make, inviting himself to a woman’s table with the overt pickup line, “I want you on top!” and the saucier, “Would you like to make an order, yeah, I can serve it up.”
“The Chase” is another power pop ballad, with echoes of Teenage Fan Club and Big Star once again. The singer plumbs the line of distinction between going after someone you want and then getting her (or him). “I can see you any time, that’s why I don’t care/ I want what isn’t there. I know it’s bad to feel this way/ I know it’s hard to hear it said/ I can see you any time, so I don’t,” he sings, before spelling out the disastrous consequences of being a selfish jerk who can’t make up his mind, apologizing for being malicious, knowing she’ll come back to him because she’s the “sweetest thing.” But he warns that he can’t promise he’ll be different.
“Sans Fear” is another heart-wrencher, about a guy who knows he can’t change the woman he loves, but he can change his view, his anguished vocals crying over a crunchy Big Dipper-esque banquet of guitars.
“Stronger Than” is a welcome acoustic break after the squalling bombast of “Always” and it also offers a ray of hope: Love is stronger than fear.
Yorn then takes a step back to take a look ahead in “Future Life” with its conflicting emotions of someone who can’t get past whatever past sorrow is stopping him from enjoying his good fortune: “Life’s been great to me/ Oh yeah, it feels a little sad/ Got to break out of here/ Appreciate what I have.”
The album officially ends with the country ballad, “Wheels,” and sort of brings the album back around with lines about wheels making the singer a man and bringing him back home: “We’re not afraid to ride/ We’re not afraid to die/ Come on wheels take me home today/ Come on wheels take this boy away,” he sings as the song fades away.
But there’s a bonus track, “Favorite Song (B-side)” that acts as a nice coda to the album, and reaffirms for me that Yorn, with his strained, anguished rasp and insightful, bittersweet lyrics and deft strumming, is much more than a pretty boy with a guitar.