Pete Yorn is one of those names you know, if not always realizing or recognizing why. His debut album made him a Rolling Stone One To Watch for 2001, going gold to boot, thanks partly to the single “Life On A Chain.” (Aah, that Pete Yorn!) A further six albums have followed, as well as various other live albums and collaborations. He’s been the musical muscle behind some of Scarlett Johansson’s excursions into music, they making one LP and an EP together, another possibly on the way. He is also a regular on soundtracks and tributes, performing the songs of others as varied as The Ramones, Bruce Springsteen and New Order. We have featured him often.
Now comes album number seven, Pete Yorn Sings the Classics. Quite where the parallel galaxy is that considers this quirky set of songs classics, I don’t know, but it’s somewhere I could happily live. OK, many you will know, and some are fitting of that title, with others maybe vaguer memories, perhaps from childhood. But don’t dismiss this, the love here seeps thickly through the grooves and makes this just one great big grin of a project.
The approach to Pete Yorn Sings the Classics is simple: Yorn dusts down and performs songs etched in his memory banks, along with a bunch of pals. I’d give odds they’re there as much for the craic as their musicianship, Yorn being adept on just about any and every instrument and capable of doing the whole shebang alone (it wouldn’t be the first time). There are few overt revisions, although he gives a pleasingly Herb Alpert/Tijuana sheen to Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” that draws out the deep pop sensibilities in the melody.
Opener is the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man,” which underlines the debt Black Francis et al have to ’60s music, bringing out even more overtly the song’s joint references to “Here Comes the Night” and “Waiting For the Man.” I’m a confirmed Pixies agnostic, but this cover could even have me questioning my beliefs.
The aforesaid “Lay Lady Lay” throws a joyous hat in the air, with the wonderfully retro parping of Dave Ralicke’s trumpet, and the party is on. Next comes a huge rush of nostalgia as Yorn visits the specter of Diana Ross; “(Theme from) Mahogany,” lying dormant and unremembered all these years, has just been awaiting his blue touch paper, abetted by a glorious joint vocal by Liz Phair.
One of the first singles I bought, as a young man in love, was Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know,” and I will confess it was also the prompt to pick up this project. Imbuing it with a wearier ambience than the original, it works well, the yin to Kirsty’s yang. By contrast, sometimes it floors me how Roxy Music’s “More Than This” has become a coverland cornerstone, a stone this builder has rejected as never seeming among Mr. Ferry’s finest. But Yorn kicks new life into the warhorse here, and the lope of most versions becomes a canter, the piano and steel outro lingering long.
It’s a tough gig tackling early Beach Boys, and few manage to avoid mawky comparison. “Surfer Girl” could have sounded a sly dig at teenybop love songs, but the affection here is clear, rising above any sense of parody. To follow straight into the Stone Roses’ “Ten Storey Love Song” might seem an awkward segue, but believe me, they could have come from the same pen, such is the cleverness of the arrangement. Yorn’s voice breathes more vibrancy into the song than Ian Brown Ian Brown.
“I Am a Rock” has seemed too often an overlooked gem in the Paul Simon canon. Here Yorn pulls out more yearning, more poignancy than Art Garfunkel gave it, making it a statement of regret rather than warning. Again, by taking on a song made iconic by the vocal style of the Velvet Underground original, “New Age” is transformed, a sense of longing that trumps Lou’s laconic drawl. The pedal steel of Tim Walker demands special mention here, sumptuous across many of the tracks, again complementing the joint keys of Yorn and Rami Jaffee, the Foo Fighters sideman.
“Moon River” is a dicey closer; this is the one track I might be tempted to skip, my head too clogged up with Andy Williams and his weekly TV show. To me, it’s just a little too angsty, a little too twee for my ears, even if the arrangement tries to counter that. Probably my bad, rather then Yorn’s.
This is, notwithstanding, an uplifting romp, and the mood rarely falters. Bringing to mind a less self-conscious and less knowing Evan Dando and his Varshons projects, this is an unashamed celebration of songs and how they are crafted. The deft co-production (Yorn with Marc ‘Doc’ Dauer) helps, Dauer also contributing additional instrumentation. There is the combination of lightness of touch with more layers than seem at first apparent. I’d like to hope Pete Yorn Sings the Classics will get recognition in a crowded market, perhaps even encouraging a delve in Yorn’s own songbook.
Sings the Classics track listing:
- Here Comes Your Man (Pixies cover)
- Lay Lady Lay (Bob Dylan cover)
- Theme from Mahogany (Diana Ross cover)
- They Don’t Know (Kirsty MacColl cover)
- More Than This (Roxy Music cover)
- Surfer Girl (Beach Boys cover)
- Ten Storey Love Song (Stone Roses cover)
- I Am a Rock (Simon & Garfunkel cover)
- New Age (Velvet Underground cover
- Moon River (Audrey Hepburn(!) cover)