Editor's note: Doug McGrath is a music contributor with four decades of experience as a member of the Dallas music community. This week, he reviews a new EP from Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson.
Band name: Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson
Album: Apart EP, released June 1 (Capitol Records)
Rating: 2.5 out of 4
One line: Singer-songwriter and actress collaborate on a second release.
Review: This may come as a surprise to those who know my musical tastes, but I'm actually a big fan of Pete Yorn. I feel like he's underrated but his records are well crafted, and although he's a singer-songwriter, he and his touring and recording guitarists are talented and never boring.
He's also not afraid to try new things, like his collaboration with actress Scarlett Johansson.
He and "Scar," as he calls her, have known each other for more than 15 years and have collaborated previously. Yorn reached out to her in 2006 after being inspired by a collaboration between French artist Serge Gainsbourg and French actress Brigitte Bardot, who teamed up in 1968 on an album Bonnie and Clyde.
Yorn admits that prior to recording with Johansson, he didn't even know whether she could sing. Nonetheless, the two recorded an album of nine songs called Break Up.
Separate interests got in the way before the two could release the record. Yorn released his 2006 album Nightcrawler and went on tour; Johansson made other musical excursions, including an appearance with The Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella in 2007. She also released an album of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head, in 2008.
It wasn't until 2009 that they finally released Break Up. It peaked at #41 on the Billboard 200 — not as big as Yorn's 2003 release, Day I Forgot (which reached #18), but more than 20 spots higher than either of his subsequent two records. Clearly, they were on to something.
Nearly a decade later, they return with this new EP, which picks up where their previous album left off, detailing the aftermath of a break-up: missed opportunities, thinking about the past, finding hope.
Relationships are familiar territory for Yorn. On early hits such as 2003's "Long Way Down," he showcases his skill at penning good relationship one-liners like "I don't want you, so why should I compete with other guys?"
But on that material there's no female foil. Once you hear him and Johansson sing together, you appreciate the fact that the combined male and female vocals make the songs more interesting and entertaining than those told from just one voice.
I'll get right to it: Scarlett Johansson is good on this. If you listen to her as just another performer, and not someone famous, her voice sounds good next to Yorn's. She has a wide vocal range and a sound that puts you at ease. She la-la-las beautifully but can also hit deeper notes than you might expect.
The vocals are very front and center. Normally, I might not like that. But it's effective enough to hook even a non-lyrics guy like myself, and I didn't miss the heavier musical component normally present on a Pete Yorn record. Getting lost in a story is one of the redeeming qualities of Apart, and one that Johansson's presence seems to have added.
Her character sets the scene on the first track, "Iguana Bird," with the lyrics, "Do you like how you're living your life, away from me?" What plays out over the rest of the EP is a series of answers to that question.
She starts the second song, "Bad Dreams," as well, with a vocal style that has almost a twangy accent. She and Yorn trade half-verses about the sleepless worry of their messy lives, and harmonize together, "We will always have bad dreams."
On this song, and on most of the EP, Yorn's vocals are a little quieter than Johansson's, making her the lead in many of the choruses. Her voice has a sweet lullaby quality, while Yorn plays a warm, lower-register supporting role.
The third track, "Movies," is an introspective and moody song, dominated by an element generally absent from Yorn's other studio material: keyboards. In this slower, airy piece, the two sing about going to the movies, harmonizing on a simple refrain: "I don't want to run without you."
On "Cigarillo," Yorn leads the song, and he does mention the cigarillo, in case you're wondering: "I tried to call you out at night, a cigarillo in your eyes." Relationship tension on this one is external, as he laments how "everyone just cut you off, told me you're not good enough."
The EP closes on the bouncy and addictive "Tomorrow," a reworked song from Yorn's 2016 album, Arranging Time. The characters seem to be back together and mildly optimistic: "Hand on your heart, tomorrow is another day. Hand on your hope, tomorrow we will get away." In interviews, Johansson says she liked this song and wanted to sing it. Her smoky voice fits right in, dominating the effortless-sounding harmonies on the chorus.
It's too bad Apart only has five songs; I'd like to hear a full LP, and would like to see them tour together. But I'll make sure I see the next Pete Yorn tour, with or without "Scar."