The most common, laziest read on Pete Yorn is that he’s a poor man’s Ryan Adams, a comparison drawn from the singer-songwriter’s use of some traditional country instrumentation in the granola rock of his 2001 debut, Musicforthemorningafter. But the similarities between the two end there. Yorn, for one thing, doesn’t conduct himself like someone begging to be kicked in the shins; as a singer-songwriter, he lacks both Adams’s outsized classic-rock ambitions and also his sloppiness. The songs on Musicforthemorningafter and its follow-up, 2003’s Day I Forgot, were many things, but they certainly weren’t the tossed-off numbers built around a single memorable turn-of-phrase that have marred most of Adams’s recent output. Yorn’s high points haven’t matched those of Adams—though his singles “Life On A Chain” and “Crystal Village” are excellent by any standard—but he’s proven himself to be a more consistent songwriter, and certainly a good deal better than many of his bigger-selling contemporaries like Josh Kelley or John Mayer.
That said, Yorn’s third album, Nightcrawler, finds him in something of a holding pattern, and it’s the first album on which the distinctive, likeable laziness of his vocal style seems to have seeped into the production. In pairing with several new producers and co-producers, he shows a willingness to take some risks with his sturdy rock sound. While some of these attempts are interesting—Butch Walker gives “Alive” some modern rock-star swagger, and Ken Andrews makes good use of distortion to give texture to “Undercover”—the overall effect of working with five separate producers is that Nightcrawler is stylistically scattershot. Tony Berg’s channeling of The Replacements on “How Do You Go On” makes the track sound like an outtake from The Strokes’ Room On Fire, while Michael Beinhorn pushes lead single “For Us” and “The Man” (which features Dixie Chick Martie Maguire on fiddle and a completely unrecognizable Natalie Maines on a harmony vocal that sounds like dead-on Aimee Mann) in a bland AAA direction. Ultimately, the variety of styles Yorn tries over the course of Nightcrawler should position the record as a transitional album. Given his command of melody and his distinctive vocals, one hopes that Yorn will settle on something more compelling than the coffeehouse drone of so many other would-be troubadours.