The more things change, the more things stay the same. The entertainment industry goes through cycles, generally ending up just where they started, with quality taking a back seat to the quantities of theater seats filled, discs purchased, and tickets sold. So what does this have to do with the new Pete Yorn album? Well, while it may not have been intentional, he’s named it Nightcrawler, which, though it may signify some kind of drunken degenerate, makes me think of a certain blue-skinned member of the X-Men. With two highly successful films in the franchise under the artistic direction of Bryan Singer, FOX turned to the far less talented Brett Ratner after Singer abandoned the project for another man in tights. The X-Men filmmakers apparently thought that the Dark Phoenix Saga, which lasted for near twenty issues in the original comics, was not `big’ enough to sustain a major motion picture, and so added elements from Joss Whedon’s recent comic storyline about a mutant cure. Mimicking Nightcrawler’s mutant powers, the German transporter disappeared entirely from the third film. Reportedly, his part was so small, they cut him altogether to avoid the cost of the makeup process. Phew. Anyway, in similar fashion, Pete Yorn’s Nightcrawler finds the artist essentially disappearing into a puff of smoke behind glossy production and essentially cryptic lyrics. Unlike both the superhero and Yorn’s first two albums, however, Nightcrawler is almost entirely toothless. There are moments of assurances that the real Pete Yorn is there, trace elements of smoke after a “Bamf” escape, but for the most part, the album falls flat, buried under major label production and an attempt to please too many people too much of the time.
I am constantly stymied by the misuse of the term `indie rock.’ I’ve been under the assumption that it was never so much as a description of a sound as it is a noun meant to represent rock on actual independent labels. Even if I were to use it as a descriptive, I’d probably use it in relation to bands that have such a DIY sound, like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Arcade Fire or Sufjan Stevens, that you’d never find that kind of sound on a major label. But when Yorn’s press sheet calls his music a “unique blend of indie rock coupled with that classic British pop sound,” I’m flabbergasted. I am a big fan of Yorn’s first two records, Musicforthemorningafter and Day I Forgot, but I never put those two modifiers together. Brad Wood’s production of Yorn’s barroom / pub / dive, singer / songwriter fare earned Pete a number of fans, and song placement in films and on television. Now, Yorn has completed his `trilogy’ of songs representing different parts of a day. It seems that on Nightcrawler, the major label `powers that be’ wanted not only to try and retain those original fans, but also add more by appealing to the folk and country crowds, the alternative rock scene, and adult alternative markets. In doing so, they’ve diluted Yorn’s music to the point of making it a mushy gruel with little taste and flavor.
The opener, “Vampyre,” ironically is one of the only songs on Nightcrawler that actually does have teeth. Its balls-out coda seems more like the Pete Yorn of the past that I’m familiar with. The song’s lyrics could easily be about major labels and their soul sucking practices, but I could be reading too much into the song. Dave Grohl inexplicably appears as a guest drummer on “For Us,” the first single from the album. I say `inexplicably’ because his presence is so camouflaged as to be almost unnecessary. On “Policies,” a cryptic political song that is about as scathing as a Joseph Lieberman attack, he closes the song by singing, “I’ve gone over, I crossed over.” Yeah, apparently. One highlight on the album is “The Man,” a classic rock flavored tune featuring the new sound of guests from the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines’ backup vocals give the song a pleasant Stevie Nicks style flavor. “Maybe I’m Right” and “Same Thing” are two blatant examples of the `aim to please everyone’ effort of the album with the first sounding like a direct Coldplay imitation and the latter like a cut from the latest Snow Patrol snorefest. “Alive,” rather than sounding like the Pearl Jam song of the same name, sounds like Yorn is trying to rewrite “Pretty in Pink.” The one song that doesn’t sound like a Jack FM mashup was, expectedly, not written by Yorn. “Splendid Isolation” is a song penned by Warren Zevon from 1989, with Yorn’s version first appearing on Enjoy Every Sandwich, a tribute to the late songwriter.
For those thinking me unnecessarily cruel, know that it pains me to find fault in a record by an artist I admire. The truth is, I’ll be listening to Musicforthemorningafter and Day I Forgot far more than I’ll be listening to Nightcrawler in the future. It was fairly ambitious for Yorn to attempt a theme trilogy with his first three albums. Just like the X-Men franchise, the first two rocked, and the third kind of sucked. Even though I was listening to the new Pete Yorn record, I missed Pete Yorn. I didn’t feel he was really `in it’ at all. Maybe on his next album, if there is a next one, and this goes for the X-Men films also, he can just concentrate on making one good album rather than three, and he can simply try to please his own musical sensibilities rather than an entire label’s or multiple genres. Just before the album’s release, Yorn went on an entirely acoustic tour of small venues. Now that’s what I’d love to hear on the next record!