Break Up has highs, lows–ends well

By Jon Branden

Cue title card: adorable actress come singer teams up with underrated singer-songwriter to produce a short album of duets. Enter Scarlett Johansson and Pete Yorn, and their recently released album “Break Up.” Consisting of nine songs, featuring vocals from both Yorn and Johansson, “Break Up” is bound to draw references and comparisons to “Volume 1,” Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s debut under the moniker She and Him. But what may seem surprising is that “Break Up” was actually recorded in 2006, before “Volume 1.”Although I love Johansson, as well as Yorn’s solo music, I had trouble enjoying their collaboration nearly as much as either of them separately. This is not so much a collaboration as nine Pete Yorn songs that happen to feature Johansson. Indeed, a lot of the songs sound like tracks Yorn couldn’t fit on his 2006 release “Nightcrawler” (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). The opening track, “Relator” had me optimistic that Break Up was going to be an incredibly fun album. With an upbeat tempo and fun lyrics, the song immediately evoked thoughts of early 1960’s pop and indie-folk nostalgia. The harmonies between the two are great, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to smile. However, throughout most of the remainder of the album, the songs become disconnected, and the space between the two singers begins to feel bigger and bigger. On a couple of the tracks, specifically the banjo and electric-guitar-accented “Wear and Tear” and “Blackie’s Dead”, it seems as if Johansson and Yorn are singing across a big room from one another, rather than crowding around a microphone together, as it should on any duet release. This distance is further emphasized by the old phone-receiver filter on Johansson’s voice throughout the majority of the album. However, “Break Up” momentarily redeems itself midway with a cover of Big Star’s “I am the Cosmos,” a short, slow Flaming-Lips-esque tune featuring Yorn’s electronic soundscapes, and “Clean,” another great example of what these two are capable of doing together.

Conceptually, the album is wonderful and much more cohesive than “Volume 1,” tracing the rise and fall of a relationship-there’s an actual story to be told, and an intentionality to the order of the songs. Even if it doesn’t quite make the mark as a duets album, “Break Up” makes up for it in its conceptual narrative. At the same time, “Break Up” avoids a lot of the campiness of similarly formatted albums. Admittedly, there are a few places where the two couldn’t resist (“Now I’m away/I write home everyday”). But for this insatiably cute duo, it’s hard to resist a listen.