Propulsive singer-songwriter emerges from four years of label wrangling with a two-disc set that separates her personality between balladeer and rocker, with all of her compelling dynamics lost in the chasm between both sides.
On the excellent album Werewolves & Lollipops by comedian Patton Oswalt, there is a track entitled simply "At Midnight I Will Kill George Lucas with a Shovel", in which Oswalt imagines himself going back to the mid-'90s to meet George Lucas, who reveals that in the new Star Wars movies, he'll get to see Darth Vader as a kid... and be very sad. He'll also get to see the Death Star... being built. Oh, and Boba Fett as a kid... who is very sad. The rest of his imagined encounter goes as follows:
George Lucas: You seem very sad.
Patton Oswalt: Yes, you're right. I don't give a fuck about any of that stuff. That sounds... horrible! I would never go see that.
George Lucas: Would you like a dish of ice cream?
Patton Oswalt: Why, yes I would l like some ice cream. That would be very nice!
George Lucas: Well here's a big sack of rock salt!
Patton Oswalt: What? You said I'd be getting ice cream?
George Lucas: Well, when you add the cream and sugar and ice and do a little mixing and then presto, you have ice cream!
Patton Oswalt: I DON'T GIVE A SHIT WHERE THE STUFF I LOVE COMES FROM! I JUST LOVE THE STUFF I LOVE!
Every once in awhile, an artist does something similar to handing Patton Oswalt a bag of rock salt: they split their personality right down the middle. Though releasing double albums is all the rage these days, sometimes a band will get the notion of splitting up their personality on these discs, as the Foo Fighters' recently did with their 2005 release In Your Honor, where one disc was all of their rock (see: rawk) songs, and the other was all acoustic-laced mid-tempo balladry. Though the album scored a massive hit with "The Best of Me", the end result left a lot to be desired: what Dave Grohl and company removed was context, the rock songs now ricocheting off of other rock songs, all while the ballads were counterbalanced by yet more ballads. Every other Foo album had both in equal measure, and the switch between the styles made for a compelling listen (just give a listen to the perpetually-underrated There Is Nothing Left to Lose for proof of them playing up both sides in perfect tandem). A straight-through listening to the first disc of In Your Honor was a bit of a chore, though, largely because when a rock song is placed next to a rock song next to a rock song, there is no dynamic, leaving the end result a bit flat.
So why, dear reader, did Rachael Yamagata try the exact same thing?
Back in 2003, the Virginia-born theatre-major-turned-songstress released an eponymous EP that was initially pounced upon by the press due to her very Norah Jones-styled sound (Ms. Jones fresh off of eight Grammy wins at the time), even though Yamagata always had a bit more of a pop edge to her songs. Just listen to the excellent tracks "Collide" and "Worn Me Down", the latter of which was drastically re-worked into a surging guitar number for single consideration. Yamagata's full-length debut, 2004's Happenstance, didn't do anything new or revolutionary -- it was just a solid pop record through and through. Her songwriting wasn't so much confessional as it was direct: speaking bluntly about lost loves without ever once coming off as conceited or martyr-like.
Yet, in the four years that followed Happenstance, Yamagata's profile was kept low. Her follow-up record was initially slated to come out in late 2007, then was pushed back, an ominous "trailer" for the new disc appeared on YouTube in January 2008, and, now, in October, we finally get that anticipated follow-up record. Well, to be accurate, we're getting two anticipated follow-up records.
Spread across two discs, we are now presented with Elephants...Teeth Sinking Into Heart, the former of which is a ponderously long nine-track album of ballads, the latter of which feels like its own thematic EP, in which Yamagata builds upon the guitar-oriented sound that worked so well with the remix of "Worn Me Down", now launching into full-on rock (see: rawk) territory. Had some tracks from Elephants been either removed ("Elephants Instrumental", which is exactly what it sounds like) or shortened (both "Sunday Afternoon" and "Horizon" eclipse the eight-minute mark), there would have been ample room for most if not all of the Teeth tracks to fit onto one disc, which, really, would have resulted in a stunning album. As it is, we're left with both sides of Yamagata's personality, separated, neither of which are all that compelling by themselves.
Elephants begins simple enough, as the title track is a fragile piano ballad that bares a lot of Yamagata's simple trademarks: plainspoken vocals, lyrics of wanting and missing a lover, etc. It's good, but not absolutely compelling -- there is little sense of drama hanging around these songs. The exception to this is the excellent "What If I Leave", in which a love interest doesn't call when he's supposed to, and she therefore makes the bold move to leave him, a ploy that's meant to see if he actually does have feelings for her, even though she could lose everything in the process. Buoyed by the breeziest, best melody on all of Elephants, "What If I Leave" is the kind of song that ranks next to "Collide" and "Paper Doll" as some of Yamagata's best work, largely due to its sense of drama. The rest of Elephants, however, is fairly unremarkable.
"Sunday Afternoon" works with its string-assisted cry of "I won't live for you! / I won't die for you!", but at nine minutes, the climax feels a bit exasperated by the time we actually get to it. Though much promise belies the blandly-named "Duet" (in which Yamagata trades off verses with like-minded acoustic crooner Ray LaMontagne), the song lacks a compelling forward motion, even as the acoustic picking is derived almost entirely from Pachabel's Canon. In similar subconscious-theft fashion, "Brown Eyes" has a few pre-chorus moments in which Yamagata inadvertently recalls the melody line from the Beatles' "Across the Universe", much as how the closing ballad "Horizon" unfortunately plays into all those Norah Jones comparisons that have been unfairly dogging Yamagata for years. Elephants is the kind of bland, ballad-heavy disc that Yamagata had avoided so gracefully thus far in her career, and it's really a sad sight to see her finally succumb to such whims.
At least, until Teeth jars you out of your comfort zone.
Though only five tracks long, Teeth Sinking Into Heart shows more ingenuity than all of Elephants, along with far more energy. Opening with the electric amps-to-11 number "Sidedish Friend", Yamagata describes an interest that she cares about in private, but not in public:
I don't want you hangin' out with me
But I want you when I call
And we can stay together separately
And we won't be lonely at all
This notion of being separate from the object of her affection comes up frequently over these two discs, almost always in different contexts (like the setup of "Horizon", in which she says, "The last time I laid my eyes upon you / You were blowin' kisses while I was waiting in a car"). There's a sense of distance on hand at all times, like on the grinding "Faster", where she (again) inadvertently recalls the chorus from another band (in this case, Radiohead's "Electioneering"), here declaring "I'm goin' faster / You're goin' backwards / And you're gonna miss me when I'm gone". Even the hapless subject of the furious "Accident" is distanced from our narrator, as he appears to be in love with a girl whose life is less than desirable because, according to the judging, scorning Yamagata, "everybody loves an accident".
It is here that Yamagata lets loose, spewing some actual venom while guitars rage around her. With its brisk running time, Teeth leaves you wanting more, even if its closing track (the alt-country-tinged "Don't") could have easily found its way onto Elephants with no harm done to either disc. At the end of the day, there is no reason why Yamagata should ever separate her personality like this. Though each disc has its own powerful moments, the weaknesses are all eventually magnified by this unnecessary segregation of styles. This isn't exactly handing Patton Oswalt a big bag of rock salt, but the scary thing is that it's not too far off....