Norah Jones has a lot of explaining to do. Ever since the sultry songstress's earth-shatteringly successful debut, Come Away with Me, the music industry's major-label lemmings have been praying lightning will strike twice.
Not that 26-year-old Chicago singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata wouldn't be making records in her own right. The Virginia native's talent is undeniable. But her self-titled EP certainly wouldn't be serving as a sampler for an upcoming RCA debut produced by frat-rock "it" boy John Alagia, who has made a career of being the guy who recorded the Dave Matthews Band's independent first album.
The very reasons for Jones's success -- her breath-of-fresh-air single, "Don't Know Why", and its genre-smashing idiosyncrasy -- explain why Yamagata's polished collection of songs falls just short of being memorable: Yamagata, though fraught with potential, too rarely dares to think outside the box.
Versatile or chameleonic? This question pops up a few seconds into every track, as Yamagata evokes a breathier Jones ("Collide"), Jeff Buckley ("Known for Years" and "These Girls"), a dumbed-down David Gray ("Worn Me Down"), Leona Naess ("The Reason Why"), and Beth Orton ("Would You Please").
That Yamagata can't escape or better upon her influences in any of these songs is a shame, because nearly every composition shows sophistication beyond her years, and she has a lovely voice. The gentle, clackety piano of "Collide" serves as an exciting introduction to Yamagata, who intones, "I'll fascinate you / For a while". She enunciates these words with a distinctive slur mildly reminiscent of 1970s British folkie John Martyn. The drums settle into an unexpectedly funky groove, making this by far the record's best song. Second track "Known for Years" compels attention, too, until its soaring chorus reveals it to be Buckley homage. (For what it's worth, it's a very good Buckley homage.) "It'd be a shame to make-believe", sings Yamagata. "It's better to leave".
Alas, she then goes and makes herself critic-bait with the resolutely awful "Worn Me Down", the disc's crassest moment. At the risk of getting technical, have you ever listened to Bush's "Glycerine"? Green Day's "When I Come Around"? Blink-182's "Dammit" and "All the Small Things"? Better Than Ezra's "Good"? Semisonic's "Closing Time"? U2's "With or without You"? Or any song by the dreadful jam band O.A.R.? The music to "Wear Me Down" derives from the same formula, a trick of lazy songwriting that often scores hits because it sounds so gosh darn familiar. Bush dressed up its clichéd guitar with the grunge that was then in vogue, while Green Day and Blink took this basic musical prototype the pop-punk route. Like the similarly derivative Howie Day single, "Collide", Yamagata goes for an adult-contemporary audience, adding electronic beats that aspire to the genius of David Gray's "Babylon" and guitars worthy of another cookie-cutter composition: Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn".
That said, how much you want to bet "Worn Me Down" will be the single?
Alagia didn't produce this disc; Daniel Lanois devotee Malcolm Burn did. But if you've ever heard how Alagia transmogrified laid-back acoustic phenom Jason Mraz into a funkier Avril Lavigne sound-alike for hit "The Remedy", you can only dread what he might do with Yamagata. On "Worn Me Down", she shows she's all too willing to write disposable music if it might fit into the established radio landscape.
The fourth track, "The Reason Why", could have been on Leona Naess's recent self-titled album, if not for the occasional throaty croon -- "our love will never dieeeeee". The melody even bears more than a striking resemblance to the highlight of Naess's record, "Calling". "The Reason Why" is a strong song, but it's neither as strong nor original as its peers.
The next song, "Would You Please", provides a glimpse of what Yamagata is truly capable of. "Would you please let me slide a few words under your door?" she sings. "The first three say 'I love you' / The last five 'but I can't no more'". The arrangement, featuring a simple, jazzy acoustic guitar, leaves space for Yamagata's lovely voice to roam. A sprinkling of Orton-esque keyboards adds depth. Not-so-hidden "hidden track" "These Girls" (it's listed on the back of the CD) concludes the disc with more atmospherics, this time calling to mind Fiona Apple.
All told, it's an impressive debut, disfigured horribly by the inclusion of "Worn Me Down". It's shocking that someone capable of "Collide" or "Would You Please" -- songs that are lovely despite their derivativeness -- would also associate her name with such a calculated piece of pap. If she can avoid such tendencies in the future, Yamagata might have a strong, noteworthy career ahead of her. Based on her choice of Alagia as a producer, it looks like she just wants to cash in.
"I'll fascinate you / for a while", she sings on "Collide". Fascinating though Yamagata is at times, her charms are only transitory.