Back and Fourth is a pleasant but uneven showing for Pete Yorn.
On Back and Fourth, Pete Yorn's easy folk/pop singer-songwriter qualities are alive and well. This album is very easy to listen to, but uneven songwriting keeps it in the midrange when Yorn could be capable of brilliance. Yorn has a beautiful voice with an aching timbre, as heard on the album's opener "Don’t 'Wanna Cry" (not a Mariah Carey cover). However, he has a lot of contemporaries competing for the same audience -- Damien Rice, Conor Oberst and Rhett Miller, to name three -- with stirring voices, and with the possible exception of Miller, and each has an extremely consistent songwriting output.
Yorn has some selling points to distinguish him from the others, thankfully. The use of mandolin on Back and Fourth provides a perfect touch. The instrument is never too intrusive, and it lends just enough texture to songs that might sound a bit flat otherwise. Yorn also ornaments some songs with strings or especially poignant delivery, making the songs transcend his own writing, as in "Close".
And there are moments of brilliance -- whole songs of genius, inspired songwriting. There are clever couplets, "I Googled your name in quotes / Got no results" from "Social Development Dance". For the most part, though, the songs run together, given the monotony of instrumentation, vocals and mediocre lyrics. It contains many points at which the album could have breathed anew with the help of a keyboard or guest vocalist -- if not a catchier chorus -- but the album stays its course. Would-be heart-wrenching ballads like "Thinking of You" would stand out more if other songs had more distinguishing features. Instead, the slow, sparse build of the song seems like more of the same.
Conversely, "Four Years" suffers a bit from the opposite problem. The instrumentation is more dramatic than other songs on the album, but it's quiet and compressed, and Yorn's voice kicks in almost immediately. To create the drama for which Yorn seemed to be reaching, loud instrumental phrases need to build the intensity before his voice begins the story. When Yorn does stay quiet and let the music do its work, the music is usually so similar to what backs his voice he may as well be singing. The opening riff to "Country", a pleasant exception to this, begs listeners take notice.
Yorn will always have plenty to offer and be palatable at worst. However, his moments of genius are too soon abandoned for monotony. If he hopes to rise to the top of an already-crowded genre, he'll have to take some risks and embrace his own genius moments.