The story goes that a fan at a recent Rachael Yamagata show barked out at one point that she was carrying on a torrid affair with a musician. The singer didn’t skip a beat but felt led to advise the young woman. “No good!” came her rejoinder, reported by the New York Times. “Go for the accountants.”
Yamagata’s one to know. Her “Reason Why” from 2004’s debut, Happenstance, spoke to just that case of the ex. In musical history terms, it served well as the dust-bowl little-sister song to Fiona Apple’s “I Know” five years earlier, itself the postmortem send-up of a songbird-and-musician tryst.
Oh, always two sides to a songbook. Such is the case with Yamagata’s latest, Elephants … Teeth Sinking into Heart. It’s two discs, more than an hour of fiendishly good, hyper-congruent songs. The first dispatch, Elephants, sounds recorded in a relational foxhole. It seems as though the Chicago-bred chanteuse shouldn’t duck into her next romance before donning a helmet and a flak jacket.
At the same time she offers up a plea that deserves all the play it gets – which, tragically, probably won’t be much. The album’s strongest cut is its first, the title track. “Elephants” comes drowsy and soaked in blood-red strings, for good reason. The wilderness metaphors mount up (elephants, tigers, and hawks, oh my!), not to mention the body count, as Yamagata takes all who will hear on a sonic safari of her last love’s wreckage. It’s an excruciating song, the most gorgeous dirge you may hear this year: “Throw yourself in the midst of danger, but keep one eye open at night.” If that whispered warning to close doesn’t chill you, you are quite likely a reptile. (But hey, maybe she’ll write an ode to you next.)
After peaking early with some tough-as-tigress regret, the singer’s words are introspective and wounded elsewhere. “I’m not gonna shed one more tear for you,” she tells Him yet again, “at least not ‘til Sunday afternoon.” With Yamagata’s stuff, it’s still all about her voice, a rather robust, breathy alto that invites well-worn comparisons to Ms. Apple and others, and when coupled with her emotive prowess when perched on a piano bench.
A lot of the songs are stripped down, as with the slightly underwhelming “Duet,” a weary, failed-love take with Ray LaMontagne that seems like a Ryan Adams B-side. (A not-undeserved criticism, considering Yamagata’s vocals lent to Adams’ own dual-disc, Cold Roses.) The Rachael-Ray voices mesh wonderfully, but the words ring recycled. A vague downer.
“Over And Over,” “Horizon,”and “Brown Eyes” are all pretty balladeering, and all present Yamagata as doe-eyed keeper of a constant, unrequited affection. But it’s hardly all defeated moping here. “Little Life” angrily and passionately reminds that “This little life goes so fast.” Nothing moves as quickly or quietly as the future. That message, on the heels of “Elephants,” proves nearly as stark and naked as that of its predecessor, and it startles for how Yamagata raises a voice that’s equally clarion and raspy.
“Horizon” sits pretty at 8:30, not quite matching “Sunday Afternoon”’s 9 minutes but reiterating Yamagata’s comfort in simply abiding. It sounds as if she’s well earned it. “Nothing is clear to me,” she sings repeatedly, simply, and genuinely as ever. Unlike, say, Death Cab’s disastrous “I Will Possess Your Heart” earlier this year, these extended songs don’t feel indulgent but rather like front-porch-sitting mental streams. Hidden track “The Only Fault” serves as a fitting postscript: “It’s true, the only fault I found in you/ Was not being free to take what I would give.”
The siren abandons her elephant-tusk ivories for an axe on Teeth’s five songs. Indeed, angry, PJ Harvey-inspired garage rock takes over on the album’s shorter second act. Yamagata was right to regroup as such. These songs would be jarring if interspersed with the stranded, languishing ballads up front. All have about the same tempo, but “Faster” emerges as a winner for its trashy, fangs-out assault on a deadbeat dude. After the sanity-salvaging lakes of loss and rejection at the album’s outset, it’s good to hear Yamagata yelp with abandon later like this.
And the last word here is “Don’t.” As in “Don’t fuck me in front of me,” the singer’s final do-let-the-door-hit-you notice to an unworthy paramour. One sweet day “Rachael Gets Married” will read the headline, and we who knew her in these visceral trenches will cheer in the streets. You know she’s doing something right, as she just plain feels like the home team. She’ll be a champ yet – and likely long before her hometown’s kamikaze Cubs.