Having created a profoundly ‘serious’ second album in 2008′s double-disc Elephants… Teeth Sinking Into Heart, whose troubled gestation ultimately led to her departure from Warner, Rachael Yamagata returns with a self-consciously less weighty release in the form of Chesapeake. Financed through Pledge Music donations, released on her own Frankenfish Records, and headed up once again by producer John Alagia, it’s a rather problematic listen that suggests Yamagata was perhaps better off operating within her comfort zone of more thoughtful and considered fare.
Chesapeake is a strange beast in that its second half is superior by far to its underwhelming beginnings. Only the opening number ‘Saturday Morning’ is up to her usual standard, its lush, warm production couching Yamagata’s alluring, smoky voice in mellow guitars and soft percussion. Stylishly low-key, it’s a satisfying and uplifting start that immediately pulls the listener in. And while ‘Miles On A Car’ at first impresses with Yamagata’s gritty vocal set to a bluesy rhythm, the dip in quality comes through in the lyrics which find the once-poetic writer drawing on unimaginative rhymes of the car/are/far variety. ‘I Don’t Want To Be Your Mother’ changes tack completely, venturing into schmaltzy piano balladry that does neither Yamagata nor the album at large any favours. The inconsequential ‘Stick Around’ and overwrought ‘Dealbreaker’ only consolidate the suspicion that Yamagata lacks the conviction her new direction requires to translate successfully.
Yamagata’s rally begins with the mid-album one-two punch of Chesapeake‘s two lead singles. With its fluid piano lines and spiky, Cocteau Twins-like guitar propelling one of the album’s stronger melodies, ‘Even If I Don’t’ provides a desperately needed change of pace, while the moody, bluesy ‘Starlight’ is even better, with Yamagata utilising her sultry voice to its full effect and alternating the sung sections with spoken-word passages. Returning to some of the predictable chord progressions and standard-fare bluesiness of the album’s opening stretch, ‘The Way It Seems To Go’ is something of a downturn that, given its failure to go anywhere significant, doesn’t nearly warrant its five-minute length. ‘You Won’t Let Me’ thankfully gets the album back on track as it nears its conclusion, with an emotive, beautiful melody and sensitive piano worthy of vintage Carole King providing one of the record’s more sincere inclusions, and this ’70s nostalgia bleeds on through to the elegant piano-and-strings finale of ‘Full On’, which successfully negotiates the narrow distinction between a progression that sounds classic and one that sounds dated and plodding.
Chesapeake succeeds most when Yamagata gives her beguiling, raspy vocal style a memorable melody to work with. As tasteful and inviting as Alagia’s production often is, the fundamentally short supply of lingering tunes means the album too often gets lost in its own mid-tempo haze. It’s not a wholly throwaway record, with enough strong songs to prove that she can still impress when she tries to, but in aiming for a lighter feel some of Yamagata’s more distinguishing traits have been allowed to simply evaporate.
[Frankenfish; October 10, 2011]