I think that my beginnings with Rachael Yamagata are the same as a lot of people’s. I picked up a copy of Happenstance after she was hyped by Zach Braff for months. I dug the song “Letter Read” and another called “Reasons Why,” but nothing else really grabbed my attention and stuck with me. After a few listens I set it aside, and haven’t gone back to it. About a month ago I got an email saying that she was about to release her new album on her own label, and that piqued my interest. I wouldn’t be very excited for this record if she were still with a major, because that wouldn’t allow her the freedom to make the album that she wants. Left to her own devices, Rachael Yamagata has put together a really good album that showcases her abilities.
I won’t go over the first couple songs. The lead track was today’s Song of the Day on NPR, and the second song, “Starlight,” was featured here, as well as a bunch of other press. So I’m guessing you’ve heard it by now. What I really want to do is skip ahead to the fourth song, “You Won’t Let Me.” The first three tracks are all good, and please don’t skip ahead on my account, but this song was the first moment on the record where I said, “What the hell was that? Where did that voice come from?”
When she allows herself, Yamagata’s pipes are as good as anyone. She does well to hold back for most of the record, because that makes those moments where she lets go and belts it out really hit the emotional highs that those couple of songs need. She’s also as talented a songwriter as anyone else working. On the song I’m talking about, she’s trying to get someone to open up:
With your hand in mine,
I would show you how to laugh.
Nothing heavy, nothing serious.
Just forget about all that.
You’ve been stepping back,
I wanna be your friend.
Tear down the walls that surround you,
Build you back up again.
I really like that she doesn’t try to stay inside a box on Chesapeake. There’s pop music, country, R&B, and straight up blues. She does it all really well, and that’s not much of a surprise looking back over some of the talent she’s worked with. She started here in Chicago with James Johnston’s funk group Bumpus, then went solo. She’s collaborated with some of the most ridiculously talented songwriters of our generation, including Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst, and Rhett Miller (also Ray LaMontagne and Jason Mraz). On this new album she seems to have taken everything she’s learned and mixed it with her natural born talent to craft a extremely smart and entertaining album.
So you have some surprises left, I’ll skip ahead to the end. “Dealbreaker” is one of my favorite final tracks of the year so far. Right up there with “Sleep Forever” by Portugal The Man and “Putting The Dog To Sleep” by The Antlers. It’s wildly different from either of those, but equally as good. It’s a slow swaying ballad that kind of reminds me of the 70’s song “Easy” by Lionel Richie (it’s not exactly like that song, but some of the chords are the same). It’s also my favorite song lyrically:
I’m looking at a letter that I wrote to you long ago,
I wouldn’t even know now where to send it.
It’s funny how it all poured out on paper.
If only I had found a way to tell you.
If only you,
Had found a way to love me for who I am,
The way that I loved you.
But all of this means nothing.
Yeah, all of this means nothing.
But all of this means nothing.
Without, without, without
So I’m kinda bummed that I didn’t give her more of a chance at the outset, but now that I’ve heard Chesapeake, I’m in for the long haul. It isn’t a perfect album, not even a great one, but there are flashes of greatness throughout. The two songs I mentioned are essentials, and a couple other really good ones are “I Don’t Want To Be Your Mother” and “Miles On A Car.” There aren’t any misfires that I heard, and I can’t wait to check out the live show when she comes through Chicago next month. Hopefully you guys will all have the album by then and we can all cheer at the concert together.