For a singer-songwriter who has often been dismissed as indistinct, Pete Yorn sure does attract a diverse range of high-profile collaborators. Having written and recorded with everyone from the Dixie Chicks to Scarlett Johansson, Yorn teamed up with Pixies frontman Frank Black to record Pete Yorn. If there’s any significance to the album’s eponymous title, it’s hard to say, since Black’s influence is felt so heavily in the production that Yorn’s participation almost feels like an afterthought.
Over the course of his career, Yorn’s songwriting and performances have been characterized by their dogged consistency and competence more so than by a strong point of view or style. Pete Yorn, unsurprisingly, offers more of the same. With lines like “I really wasn’t trying to be malicious/But I wanted you” that are pitched as game-changing revelations instead of the guarded half-confessions that they really are, “The Chase” is perhaps a perfect example of Yorn’s unaffected, straightforward songwriting. Even when he aims to build a song around a singular image, Yorn rarely comes up with something more unique than “Precious Stone,” on which he yearns for a lover to keep him forever in the same way that she might hold onto a diamond.
The material on Pete Yorn accomplishes exactly what Yorn’s songs always do: They’re never truly remarkable, but they’re likable enough and showcase his ear for an ingratiating melody. Black’s role here, then, is to give the album a punch with a bit more shoulder turn and follow through than Yorn typically swings with. The heavy electric guitar riffs are well matched to “Badman,” even if Yorn isn’t exactly believable when he claims “I am a bad man” in the song’s hook. Black leaves considerable echo in the mix on “Rock Crowd,” which gives the song an appropriate live feel, but the hard-driving arrangement on “Velcro Shoes” plays against the cutesiness of Yorn’s lyrics about building forts and playing foursquare.
Black’s instincts as a producer are typically spot-on, and his lo-fi approach here is not substantively different from his recent solo work. While that may not necessarily make Yorn any more distinctive on this album than on any of his previous efforts, Black’s energy at least gives him more of an edge than the singer-songwriter has been known for in the past. Still, it’s hard to think of Pete Yorn as the start of a new direction for Yorn, instead of just another example of how malleable his songs and singing happen to be.