In my opinion, a four year wait has never seemed as painful as that spent longing for Warner Brothers Records to finally release Elephant… Teeth Sinking Into Heart (A Record In Two Parts), the new Rachael Yamagata album. However, from the album’s opening lines, in which Yamagata states, “If the elephants have past lives / but are destined to always remember / It’s no wonder they always scream / like you and I they must have some temper,” all despair and longing are replaced by a sense of fulfillment and passion from the simple realization that those four years of have been spent wisely, carefully constructing a worthy follow up to a fairly perfect album in Happenstance.
For example, the piano on “Elephants,” the album’s opening track, remains both pure and simple, placed over beautiful flowing strings, which seem to allow Rachael’s gift for storytelling to shine. The lyrics seem both bold and pointed, yet remain completely approachable, thanks to the soothing nature of Yamagata’s breath-taking voice. But her message remains rather clear: “Stop trying to convince me to hold on, when it is far healthier for me to let go.” This song is moving and heartbreaking at its best, making in one of the best opening tracks of 2008, easily.
Following “Elephants” rests “What If I Leave,” a guitar over piano-based ballet placed over slow jazz style percussion. Lyrically, Yamagata seems to question the validity of a potential relationship, pondering the consequences of her departure. She wonders if the individual who tugs her heart-strings would even notice that she was missing, based on their previous mishaps of missed phone calls and night left crying. The string parts, tucked safely in the background, seem to serve as an exclamation of her sadness, adding a soothing sense of sorrow to the words she states flawlessly.
Switching paths, Rachael opts for a more dark county, Tom Waits type sound on the album’s third track, “Little Life.” Opening with a calm, smooth sound, “Little Life” inches towards you for the first two minutes, before popping you in the mouth, crescendoing into a frenzy at the chorus break. Yamagata’s vocals pour from her as she growls her message to you, before allowing the song to ease back down from its peak, until eventually it fades into the album’s fourth cut, “Sunday Afternoon,” a 9 minutes epic mini-series of a song laced with cellos and string progressions. Yamagata states aggressively, “I wont live for you / or die for you / or do anything anymore for you / because you leave me here on the other side / leave me here on the other side,” in a statement that captures both her vulnerability and strength in one massive blow, before swaying back to an instrumental version of the album’s opening track, “Elephants.”If one didn’t know better, it could be assumed that this track served as an intermission for set change between album segments, assuming of course that the album served as a play or theater project.
Upon return to this intermission, Yamagata offers a piece aptly called “Duet.” The number, in which the vocals are shared with Ray Lamontagne, discusses two lovers, coming back to a centralized location after being apart for an extended length of time. The story is told in two parts: the male perspective and the female perspective, and how those two sides differ. Both the storytelling and musicianship of this song come together in a way that lends itself to perfection, and as a whole this song is easily one of her best.
In “Over and Over,” the album’s sixth cut, Yamagata opens heavy, stating, “I really thought I was okay / I really thought I was just fine /but when I woke this time / there was nothing to take me back to sleep / to take you off my mind, this time.” She goes on to point out how if she could simply “let it rain,” the things ailing her would be “washed away,” but, like most people, she hides from the paths that will make her better, as they tend to be the hardest roads to walk, a reoccurring theme for Miss Yamagata.
The sound of singing birds, assuredly the same ones mentioned in the introduction to the duet, start “Brown Eyes,” a relatively simple song. Though rather pretty in the string breakdown at the two minute and thirty second spot, as a whole, both it and the next song, “Horizon” remain fairly uneventful, drab and somewhat out of place on the album. However, I must admit that if these songs are your weakest link, you’re still in pretty good shape, as it remains better than the best song on some people’s greatest album.
The album’s next cuts, “Sidedish Friend,” “Accident” and “Faster,” represents the rock star side of Rachael. Upbeat drum riffs and poppy bass patterns, stolen from the 1990’s, remind me of something you might hear on an older Liz Phair or Alanis Morrissette record. While somewhat uncharacteristic in terms of her general sound, Yamagata’s growls and scowls seem to work for her. I mean, from time to time, sadness does seem to morph into anger. So it only seems logical to channel that emotion into a song, right? Well, in theory, sure. I personally prefer the melancholy side of the the album to the pissed off guitar riffs and distortion. The lack of strings leaves a lot to be desired, and the fuzz just seems to overshadow the perspective in which the album was written from in the first place. I found this rather disappointing, really.
As if trying to save face, while leaving her own personal mark, Yamagata fingerprints her departure from the album with a song that could give Jenny Lewis Rabbit Fur Coat a run for its money. “Don’t” captures the aged country sound that is so popular right now within the hipster community. Taking the She & Him path, her voice channels the likes of June Carter, in a matter that leaves me with a great desire to see this song preformed at the Ryman. However, it also leaves me longing for the next Rachael Yamagata album. Hopefully, she won’t leave me waiting for another 4 years.
But for now, you can check out Elephant… Teeth Sinking Into Heart (A Record In Two Parts) by Rachael Yamagata in stores now on Warner Brother Records, and headlining the Fall version of the Hotel Cafe Tour.