Okay, do you want the good news or the bad news? Well, the good news is that Fiona Apple has finally released some new tunes. The bad news … they’re not all that great. All kidding aside, the aptly named Rachael Yamagata EP from newcomer Rachael Yamagata does have some bright spots, but the album as a whole is overproduced, and often the earnest intimacy of Yamagata’s voice gets lost in the production.
Yamagata got her start in Chicago with the funk band Bumpus. While with the group, she wrote a bunch of her own material that didn’t really fit in with the group’s sound, and ultimately she decided to go it alone. On the six-song EP we get a taste of what is coming from Yamagata. She already has her first LP in the works under the production of John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, O.A.R.), which is due out near the end of this winter. Lucky for her, she’s not working with Malcolm Burn on the full-length; he produced all but one song on the EP, and he fails to deliver her songs in a mood suited to her talents.
The most produced track on the EP, and most obvious attempt at a pop radio single, “Worn Me Down,” works least for Yamagata. The production is derivative, resulting in a song that is absent of the emotional cascade that comes through so clear on “The Reason Why” and the “hidden track” “These Girls.” From Yamagata’s pseudo-quirky growling of the word “anything” throughout the song to the near-ending repeat of the refrain with everything cut but the vocals and drum, it’s a paint-by-numbers attempt at a chart topper. And it makes her seem less on par with Cat Power and Fiona Apple and more akin to Nelly Furtado.
That said, there are songs that work. The triumph of the EP is without question the hauntingly beautiful “The Reason Why.” Whether or not the song is personal to Yamagata, she certainly sells the heartache of the necessary breakup as if she has lived it first hand. She paints a wonderful picture of the final moments with her full, evocative voice, making it seem as if you’re the one she’s leaving behind.
The success of the song comes not only from her careful words and tone but from the sparseness of the arrangement. It’s Yamagata and the piano at the forefront with minimal production behind her. Songwriters often feel that their demos are the best recordings of a song (see Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska,) and oftentimes they’re right. “The Reason Why” has that demo quality about it. It is Yamagata at her most naked, and it works wonderfully.
Yamagata has a wonderful voice and some nice tunes on the EP, but to canonize her as the next Carole King based on solely on this disc isn’t fair. Yamagata must decide whether she wants to be pop or rock. She can do the latter, but only if she gets the right people around her. As it stands, this EP is a good first effort, but suffers from growing pains as Yamagata tries to find a way to transfer her powerful live sound to a produced recording.