A History and a Preview: Pete Yorn at the Wiltern Theatre, April 6, 2011

During the 90s, the suits at Columbia Records had a problem on their hands.  They were making money hand over fist, but most of it was due to pawning disposable pop off on a populace that was flush from dot com stock options and high with giddiness of the Clinton administration.  The Satanic Verses set to big, fat beats probably would have been a chart topper in those days, given the perceived invulnerability of the country as it took a runaway freight train to a balanced federal budget and blushing economic success.

But at Columbia, a self-considered, long-standing paragon of artistic integrity — with a hundred-year tradition of presenting such iconic artists as Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Billy Joel, Carlos Santana, Frank Sinatra and Neil Diamond — selling wet-paper-plate snake oil a la Jakob Dylan simply wouldn’t do.

According to David Browne’s biography Dream Brother: The Lives & Music Of Jeff & Tim Buckley, Columbia in the 90s sought “esteemed career artists – or ‘heritage acts’ as they were known in-house – on which Columbia prided itself.  As Platinum-sated as Columbia was, it was vital to [label head Donny] Ienner and his colleagues to prove (for image, if anything else) they could still foster another Dylan or Bruce.”

It must have been a particularly painful time then, for Ienner, who conducted Columbia roadshows around the country, introducing the likes of Crazy Town and Destiny’s Child (then a lip-synching four-piece set to child-like choreography) to radio programmers and record retailers as the future of Columbia Records (of course these acts went on to sell shitloads of albums, but there was certainly nothing appropriately vainglorious to be gained by doing blow off a Crazy Town gold record plaque, as opposed to one with bankable cachet from someone such as, say, Billy “The” Joel).

No, the only thing record execs enjoy more than bragging about the size of their bonuses is bragging about how they rescued some aimless ne’er-do-well out of obscurity and launched their career for them, owning them all the way.  What Columbia needed was another respectable career artist, someone they could hang their hat on in a manner which said “My label is better than your label, because whereas you merely sell records, we create art.  Art which sells zillions of records but somehow still qualifies as art.”

It’s just that the problem with these would-be “heritage artists” was that they were too damn…artistic.

jeff-buckley-angel wings

Oh Jeff...stop being so damn... artistic.

When Columbia’s Jeff Buckley proved early on to be allergic to his own star power, he tried to abandon his name and devolve into a mere member of a band project he envisioned for his sophomore release called Two Ninas, the music of which was equally on par with the ridiculous scheme.  Having been talked out of that boondoggle, he recorded yet another album of unusable material at Columia’s expense.

Similarly, Columbia singer-songwriter Chris Whitley, a Texas-born, one-time factory worker (Prerequisitely blue-collar! Discovered by Daniel Lanois!) who garnered beaucoup critical acclaim for his 1991 release, Living With The Law (which yielded two radio hits), turned in a cacophonous mess named Din Of Ecstasy for record number two, which forewent all the polish of his debut in favor of sounding like it was recorded with sandpaper after he had locked himself in a closet for three months with a copy of Axis: Bold As Love and a bag of peyote.  Even the cover art looked like something that Daniel Johnston had cast off for being too low-brow.  Released four years after his Columbia coming out, the record saw daylight on Sony’s WORK label imprint, rather than Columbia proper.

chris whitely din of ecstasy album cover

Too lowbrow for Daniel Johnston - album cover for Chris Whitely's "Din of Ecstasy"

(Buckley and Whitley both went on to die prematurely, incurring notoriety from which the sales of their catalogs spiked, generating cash for Columbia anyway.  Absurdist conspiracy theorists: discuss).

No, if Columbia was to make their mark with another “heritage” act, it was going to have to be someone that wasn’t prone to following artistic vision in lieu of understanding just how important fourth quarter sales projections were.  Someone who could accept being mainstream without feeling tortured.  Someone who could be label mates with the band Train — without understanding why that should be embarrassing.

By the end of the decade, Columbia found their answer — in the form of a former Syracuse University lacrosse-playing frat boy named Pete Yorn.

Yorn always appears in photos as though he's just been stopped walking down the street.

Yorn fit the bill in a number of ways: for one, he was from New Jersey (just like The Boss!) and two, his billy goat vocal warblings demonstrated limited singing ability (just like Dylan!).  Third, his brothers Rick and Kevin, and his sister-in-law Julie were entertainment industry big shots in Hollywood, a context within which any signs of being overly artsy rather than properly commercial could duly be contained.

(None of this is secret.  In fact, early Columbia PR Jedi mind tricks did their best to celebrate Pete’s nepotistic family tree, as if no one would notice all the strings attached after the fact if they were pointed out ahead of time (and essentially, this was true, if only because no one bothered to read any of the press.))

And yet, it the midst of all of this, Pete Yorn triumphed.

His 2001 Columbia debut, musicforthemorningafter, was a confident and charming record which was quickly saddled and ridden by tastemakers who had otherwise been waiting out a bleak radio landscape populated by the likes of Britney Spears, *NSYNC and P!nk on one side and Fuel, 3 Doors Down and Lifehouse on the other — with the general blandness of Dave Matthews Band, Michelle Branch and Matchbox 20 squarely in the middle of the road.

Of course, Yorn couldn’t compete with the biggest smash hit of the year – a little thing called 9/11 (no, Ryan Adams would take that honor with his song “New York, New York” and an accompanying video which showed him brooding around with the unfelled Twin Towers behind him), — but not even Columbia’s marketing team could be expected to magically manifest an appropriate set of corresponding coattails on which Yorn could ride.  No, what Yorn did was make what was at the time an earnest and exceptionally good (nearly great, even) album, and tour behind it the best he could, though some would say his unaccomplished live act, leaving more than a little to be desired, begged for him to be renamed Pete Yawn.

After the dust had settled (the accolades for musicforthemorningafter, not that of the World Trade Center), Yorn proceeded to capitalize on his promise of being Columbia’s Great Heritage Hope by…doing nothing special.  Instead, he churned out a succession of unremarkable follow-up records while he and his posse of ex-jock, Range Rover-enabled L.A. poon hounds earned a reputation for going through Young Hollywood vaginas faster than Yorn was going through sidemen in his band.  And while musicforthemorningafter remains his best-selling album to date (certified gold!), it oddly remains the worst-charting of his studio albums (including the ill-conceived and even more poorly executed Break Up duets-with-Scarlett Johansson-record — an obvious effort to shake things up in ye olde stagnant sales department (with assistance from Yorn’s brothers – both of whom rep Johansson in different capacities)).

Scarlett-Johansson-sunshine

Which brings us to 2011, where Yorn has arrived in possession of six full-length studio albums, two live albums, four EPs and nearly 40 live EPs (culled from a record-store performance tour).  Yet for all of that, Yorn really isn’t any further along today than he was 10 years ago.  It’s arguable that his prolific output, very much found wanting for lack of artistic (or even significant commercial) impact, is possibly the result of a best-laid major label plan not so much going astray as it was just very, very wrong to begin with.  Because while the music industry excels at turning talentless trash into sales gold, it’s not so great at making much of mediocre, as the budget bins of any used record store will attest.  In fact, it would be admirable that Yorn has come as far as he has, given the meager offerings which have followed musicforthemorningafter, except for his family pedigree looming behind him.  After all, can anyone truly question whether or not a similar artist, lacking Yorn’s powerful family business ties, would have long-since been dropped by their label at this point, nearly 50 releases into their career with not a single million-seller in the bunch?

And that is perhaps why Yorn will be taking the stage April 6th at the Wiltern Theater to celebrate musicforthemorningafter’s 10th anniversary and playing that record in its entirety — as an attempt to remind The People that once upon a time, he made a decent (“nearly great, even”) record, even if it was just the one…which will undoubtedly help promote the sales of the Columbia’s recently released 10th anniversary re-issue of that album as well.

But frankly, revisiting an album which in retrospect has more in common today with the safe, bland, hum-ability of Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me than it does with the recognizable still-dangerousness of The Smiths, The Cure and New Order (all referenced as uber-influences of Yorn’s in the fawning, David Fricke-penned liner notes accompanying the re-issue) might not be the best idea, either.

Even to those who are of the mind that musicforthemorningafter has aged exceptionally well — to likewise remind them that it was “good in the beginning” (to quote Yorn himself, from his 300,000 seller, Day I Forgot), might really draw attention to the fact that it ain’t so great now, and hasn’t been for awhile.

As for the reissue itself – is it really necessary to remaster something that was just released in 2001?  Wasn’t that a year in which all sorts of, you know, old albums were already being remastered and re-issued?  Are we to believe that musicforthemorningafter was recorded so poorly a mere decade ago that the remastering treatment will now have it sounding stellar by comparison?

And regarding the re-issue extras: we get a second disc which has one truly unreleased track alongside a previously released song from the original vinyl version of musicforthemorningafter as well as a demo and a remix of other, already familiar songs.  These tracks are buffered by the entirety of Yorn’s era-relevant KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic session, which would be splendid, were it not easily heard previously and also readily available on the fan-circulated musicfromthenightbefore bootleg, which also comes with unreleased, same-era songs such as “Farmer vs. River,” “Model American,” “You Never Knew” and “Rooftop” — none of which made the cut here.  All said, there’s really not much to the re-issue that’s not tired before the wrapper even comes off the package.

Put bluntly, the whole 10th anniversary re-issue and performance schtick smacks of something disingenuous, like Yorn’s career in general.  Though notable, musicforthemorningafter isn’t much of a tent pole with which to anchor any artist, and certainly not one as uninspiring as Yorn — and yet it’s being trumpeted as something deeply significant, as if the marketing alone will make it true.

RU4 musicforthemorningafter?

Lack of sales and airplay aside, what Yorn is really missing is that magnetic bellwether attraction known as influence; it’s not like Yorn has inspired a whole generation of kids to whine and grunt like farm animals and write songs of self-possessed regret, at least not in the way Dylan pied-piper-ed millions into wheezing along with him or the way re-issued low-sellers like Pavement and Sonic Youth have inspired scores of musicians in their wake.  There simply is nothing culturally relevant about Pete Yorn.

For those in attendance a the Wiltern April 6, let’s hope the show provides a rousing jog down memory lane, resulting in a good time being had by all.  Sadly however, it’s more likely that during snoozers like “Black,” “Lose You” and “Simonize,” concert-goers will realize that — like jokes about 9/11 — for this undistinguished artist, the whole reissue and album-in-it’s-entirety concert honorarium is simply “too soon.”

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