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Review: Pete Yorn brings Hollywood flair to Push Ultra Lounge



Pete Yorn: Underrated guy.

His best songs, crooned all whispered and growly, remind you of relationships that didn't work out. And the songs you don't know sound like fragments of lost R.E.M. albums. 

Why isn't he more famous? I'm not quite sure, though I'm willing to guess it's because he suffers from Scrubs Syndrome.

You know what I mean. On the TV sitcom Scrubs, every time Dr. Cox would say something profound, prompting J.D. to realize the patient he'd been treating all day was an apt metaphor for both his feelings about Elliot as well as Turk and Carla's less interesting B-story arc, there would be a song by Rhett Miller or Joseph Arthur or Joshua Radin or, for the purposes of this blog post, Pete Yorn. (I'm only using Scrubs as an example here; the principal is the same for Grey's Anatomy, One Tree Hill and many other shows.)

As a solo artist, Yorn broke through before the rest of them (although Miller's Old 97s were pretty rad back in the day), and his debut album musicforthemorningafter came out six months before Scrubs premiered.  And on his albums, singles like Crystal Village and For Nancy ('Cos It Already Is) rock a lot harder than those of his coffeeshop contemporaries.

Nonetheless: Songs like Strange Condition, Life On A Chain and On Your Side seemed destined for a life on TV and movie soundtrackdom as soon as they were released. Watching Yorn live, you feel like you're watching TV and not a concert -- you half expect Snoop Dogg Intern to walk across the stage.

And perhaps that smidgen of Hollywood pizzazz is why the crowd at Thursday night's Pete Yorn concert on a chilly night in St. Petersburg looked well-heeled and well-dressed and ready to party, instead of moping about in flannel and hoodies and Chucks.

See, this show was at Push Ultra Lounge, the slick bar and club above Red Mesa Cantina. Like the Airborne Toxic Event concert earlier this year, this Yorn show seemed like a curious (if welcome) choice for Push. Maybe organizers were hoping Yorn's more glamorous partner in Tinseltown musical crime, Scarlett Johansson, would show up, too.

Did she?

No, she did not. But Yorn did play several songs from their underrated joint album, Break Up, including Blackie's Dead and the especially catchy Search Your Heart *. Most of the 200 or so people at Push -- it felt more crowded than it probably was because it's so small -- didn't seem to be feeling the new material, which in my mind is kind of a shame, because Break Up really is quite nice. But c'est la vie.

The best moments of the set, in my mind, were a lovely, soulful, piano-driven version of The Man, which called to mind Bruce Hornsby; and the warm All At Once, which Yorn said "is a song about New Jersey," and which felt like a comforting Counting Crows jam. Yorn also played a supremely bouncy cover of New Order's Bizarre Love Triangle, which instantly felt made for TV. ("The bidding will start at Three Rivers! Do I hear Brothers and Sisters? How about Private Practice?")

The truth, however, is that the evening never really had much of a crest. For the most part, Yorn played the part of the shrinking violet, amiable but uncommunicative, mumbling into the microphone only occasionally. Some of his songs sounded much different than the studio versions -- I enjoyed Zak Shaffer's throbbing drumwork on Strange Condition and a Death Cabby On Your Side, but didn't care at all for the stripped-down, mandolin-heavy version of my favorite Yorn song, Crystal Village.

Did the environment play a factor? Possibly. I really like Push, and I'd really like live music to work there, but more than once, you could hear the crowd at the bar talking over the music, especially on softer songs. Early on, it got so loud that the opener, Isaac Russell (think Conor Oberst meets Damien Rice meets Jason Mraz), implored the drinkers to go outside or up to the roof while he performed his sensitive acoustic ballads. (They did not comply.)

For my money, Yorn's set didn't really get cooking until the encore, when Yorn ditched his acoustic guitar and plugged in for four straight winners: (1) a classic-rocky, R.E.M.-esque For Us; (2) the unreleased rarity Rock Crowd; (3) musicforthemorningafter's Black; and (4) rollicking closer For Nancy. You could feel the floor bouncing and shaking at that point. I wish Yorn had been that dialed in all night.

As it was, it was a solid if unspectacular night of alternative singer-songwriterdom that definitely put me in the mood to go home and watch a little professionally soundtracked TV.

Maybe I'll pop in some Scrubs...

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

* As you probably know, Yorn and Johansson are not the first scruffy alternative singer-songwriter and sparkly Hollywood ingenue to record an album together in recent years; that honor goes to M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel of She & Him. This, of course, begs an obvious question: Which unlikely pairing is next? Here are my top 5 guesses:

1. Ryan Adams and Minnie Driver (after his inevitable divorce from Mandy Moore, of course)

2. Justin Vernon and Leighton Meester (although it seems she has different taste in male collaborators)

3. Ray Lamontagne and Rashida Jones (she's already worked with The Boy Least Likely To)

4. Devendra Banhart and Natalie Portman (she's already proven her lyrical skills)

5. Blake Sennett and Jenny Lewis (hey, wait a minute...)

I confess, I spent at least 20 minutes putting that list together. I think we can all agree it was 20 minutes well spent. Got any suggested additions? Add 'em in the comments.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 3:14pm]


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