Music News

Yorn Again

Why is Pete Yorn's new album so cheap? On April 15, the day of its release, Day I Forgot could be had most places for less than ten dollars. When Columbia Records stickered Yorn's 2001 debut, musicforthemorningafter, with a similarly budget-conscious tag, it was labeled "discovery price." But Yorn sold half a million copies of morningafter and toured for a year and a half, often as a headliner: He's already thoroughly discovered. Isn't it time he got the "Manufacturer's suggested retail price: $17.98" tattoo?

"I didn't know they were going to do that," Yorn says by phone from New York City the day after his sophomore album's arrival in stores. He's a few hours from taping a performance for NBC's Last Call With Carson Daly, a show with its own downgraded-stock stigma. Yorn sees Columbia's gambit as a vote of confidence, though.

"That means they're really into the album," he says. "It's not like a fire sale. They're helping me build a career, doing what they said they would do."

Yorn's end of the bargain was to deliver to Columbia a second album that wouldn't disappoint. Forgot doesn't, but not because Yorn breaks new ground; instead, the trim, 41-minute disc consolidates morningafter's strengths: singing that's committed but offhanded, sharp playing and hummable songs that echo history-minded Springsteen rock but also embrace Cure and Smiths sensibilities.

"The first record, I was super-interested in showing all sides of what I do," Yorn says. "I threw the kitchen sink into it. This time, I wanted to make a concise, classic-rock album."

But Yorn, whose debut was passed around marketing meetings and held for a year after it was finished, had stockpiled dozens of songs and continued writing as he worked on Forgot. He had to resist the impulse to issue a double album.

"I recorded 25 songs for it over a broad period of my life," he says. "Some I wrote on tour, but I recorded morningafter over three years ago. Then I toured for eighteen months. I was dying to get back in the studio. I had planned to take a month off, but after a week, I thought, fuck this."

Back in the studio, Yorn stuck with his morningafter producing partner, R. Walt Vincent, who handles the few instruments Yorn doesn't play by himself on Forgot. There are guests -- Peter Buck, former R.E.M. producer Scott Litt and Liz Phair cohort Brad Wood. Session genius Jon Brion also contributed to one track, which was ultimately left off the disc. But, like morningafter, the new album has the intimacy of the home production it mostly is.

"It was the same team, but I brought in Scott Litt for some songs," Yorn says. "I didn't want to necessarily recapture the first album, but I just feel very natural there with those people. I can take my time and do my thing. But I don't like to take too long.

"I finish songs 25 percent and purposely wait until I get in the studio to really let it happen," Yorn continues. "Then I hit a groove with it, especially this time. Working with a lot of the same guys, we were able to work on our techniques. I'm kind of a purist when it comes to recording. I wanted this to be more powerful sonically than the first record, and it is. But I didn't want it to be too glossy."

Yorn isn't satisfied to record a song in just one fashion. "I think the sign of a really good song is that you can do it in a number of ways and have it come across," he says. "It's a tribute to a song. I'm not saying my songs, but any song. On this record, I did multiple versions of different songs. In the context of the record, I'd think, 'I don't need this tempo on the album here.'"

That method doubled Yorn's workload when the time came to sequence the album.

"It's a very intensive part of making the record," he says. "I always have too many songs, and I can't fucking let them go. I play the songs for people I know, people I don't know, people I respect, to get their reactions. The last record, with the song 'On Your Side,' someone at the label was like, 'I don't get this.' And I was like, 'You will get it.' This record, I'd do weird things, like go to a dive bar and give different versions of the album to the DJ, then switch things in the sequence if it lost me while I was listening there.

"I went with what fit in context with the record as a whole and what I thought would sound best live," Yorn continues. "I didn't want to be thinking of servicing one song or two songs. I'd do a mellow version and a rocking version of some songs. The heaviest song I ever did is one of the ones not on the album. It'll be the bonus track on the vinyl release, I think. It's called 'Drive Away.' I'm just basically going bonkers on the drums.

"I've got so many songs I've recorded over the years. I have a whole other finished album that I made before morningafter. I've always liked it. Right now, it sounds really good. I go back to the Stones and the Stooges, raunchy rock. I'd like to make a raunchy acoustic record."

Unlike the similarly prolific Ryan Adams, though, 28-year-old Yorn veers on the side of not releasing enough material. He also refuses to paint himself as a hard-drinking troubadour or, like the more sanguine John Mayer, a Sting acolyte vying for adult-contemporary crossover. In fact, Yorn -- the one-man outfit whom Columbia initially hoped would assume a band name, like some offshore-incorporated tax dodge -- waves off the notion of being a singer-songwriter.

"In the first place, I don't worry about that stuff," Yorn says. "Second, the weird thing is just the term singer-songwriter. Henry Rollins and Cat Stevens -- they're nothing alike, but they're both singer-songwriters. They do different things and stand for different things and have different followings. And every band has at least one singer-songwriter."

Besides, Yorn's instinctive but unerring musicianship and impressionistic lyrics point away from the more prolix limb of the current singer-songwriter tree.

Embedded among the overdubbed electric parts on Forgot -- most of which are mixed at a safe remove from his multi-tracked vocals -- are splinters capable of getting under the skin in ways the well-tailored hooks can't. As on morningafter, Yorn works in layers, whether he's using more than one six-string, vocal or drum program. "Come Back Home," Forgot's first single and the album's real kickoff after a self-consciously unspontaneous false start, lets this formula bubble over. Yorn frames the song's chugging, hard-hat-zone melody with acoustic strumming firm enough to make carpal-tunnel sufferers wince. The chorus is as effortlessly resonant as that of morningafter's solid "Life on a Chain," and Jersey-boy Yorn launches into it with a Sopranos-ready dis that helps restore cosmic order after a decade of Springsteen's jive Dust Bowl drawl.

The loop that opens "Committed" comes from Cheap Trick's "Surrender"; more precisely, it comes from Bun E. in a Box, a Steve Albini-produced collection of samples by Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos. Yorn's own drumming recalls Carlos's laconic, no-fuss attack but swings less, owing more to that Stooges raunch Yorn admires than to the power pop his albums conduct.

Not that Day I Forgot suffers from low voltage. "Long Way Down" crunches like gravel underfoot, "Carlos" pours on enough distortion to make Lenny Kravitz spill his patchouli, and "Burrito" dares you to mock the lines "If you want a burrito/You can have another bite of mine" by moving at a gallop that's more Ramones-like than Yorn's cover of "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" on the recent train-wreck tribute to that band.

"For that song," he explains, "I was thinking of my high school days, being in a small town in New Jersey, hanging out at 7-Eleven with my friends. We'd wait for dime bags to show up, make phone calls on the pay phone. We didn't have cell phones. Hanging out there, eating hot dogs, then going to my girlfriend's house, hanging out there and being in love for the first time. It sounds like one of the rocking tracks on a Morrissey solo album."

Finally, "Every Day Is Like Sunday" for the Stone Poneys set.

Preparing for a first guerrilla jaunt across the States to promote Forgot, Yorn must now decide what to play, whether to include songs left off the album, which covers to add. While talking about it, his sense of rock-and-roll abandon comes through more clearly than it does on his two strong albums.

"Trying to figure out the set list, one of the guys was like, 'You make two sets and alternate,'" Yorn says. "My other friend was like, 'Play the hits every night.' But I don't have any hits, just minor successes. I finally decided to play it all."

Watch out for falling raunch.

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Scott Wilson
Contact: Scott Wilson