The first Pete Yorn song I ever heard was “On Your Side,” from his debut album, Musicforthemorningafter (2001), but where I heard it was a bit unconventional — playing over an ad for United Way. Fortunately, the beautiful melody and inspirational lyrics of the song worked well in that context, despite the fact that it’s about coming to terms with a breakup (“I am on your side / It’s taken me a long time”), not community service.
I didn’t know it was Yorn at the time, but a little googling helped me identify the singer. Since then his songs have been featured in a number of films and TV shows, including Shrek 2 and House (though his score for the Farrelly brothers’ Me, Myself & Irene predates Musicforthemorningafter by almost a year).
I’ve had the opportunity to see Yorn play live a couple of times now, most recently at the NON-COMMvention in Philadelphia at the end of May, and both times I’ve been impressed. He has a great band that does an excellent job of presenting his melodic power-pop in the best possible setting.
Based on those experiences, I was surprised by Yorn’s new album, Back & Fourth (Columbia). (I’ll let you guess how many he’s made prior to this one.) What took me aback was the near-total absence of rocking intensity that’s featured in his live shows. Most of the songs on Back & Fourth are presented in a hushed tone that positions them very well for a spot on Grey’s Anatomy but doesn’t do much for my rock-and-roll soul. Make no mistake — Yorn has a way with melody, his lyrics are full of romantic longing, and his voice is appealing, but somehow producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley) has failed to capture the essence of the artist. Perhaps if Yorn’s road band had been used instead of a cast of indie-rock sideman stars that includes Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.) and Jonny Polonsky (Local H), the results would’ve been more substantial.
That’s not to say, by any means, that there aren’t some wonderful moments on Back & Fourth. “Last Summer,” full of chiming electric guitars and featuring a strong performance by Waronker on drums, comes closest to matching Yorn’s live sound (and arrives at a perfect time to be featured on my seasonal mixtape). “Shotgun” is another strong track, but it’d be even stronger if Polonsky and Mogis’s electric guitars were given more prominence in the mix and the sometimes overbearing strings were taken out altogether.
If you’ve never seen Pete Yorn in concert, Live From New Jersey, recorded in 2003, will give you an idea. Maybe I’d feel differently about Back & Fourth if I hadn’t seen what he can do onstage, but the power of his live show is missing here. However, it’s also true that he’s a very talented songwriter and singer, and I look forward to what he does next. Maybe it’ll be another live album.