This review originally appeared on The Arts Desk.
Rachael Yamagata likes to take her time. Tightrope Walker comes a full five years after the American songwriter’s last release, and it’s an album that demands to be listened to with as much care as clearly went into its creation. Like the French daredevil Philippe Petit, for whom her latest album was apparently named, slow and steady wins the race for Yamagata: it’s there in its staid, rhythmic opener and title track; and it’s there in the atmospheric, but no less deliberate, “Money Fame Thunder”, which closes proceedings with another nod to its central character.
Best known for the sort of emotive songwriting that soundtracked the TV dramas of the mid-aughts (“Reason Why”, from her 2004 debut Happenstance, is as close to an emotional bloodletting as it’s possible to get in just over five minutes), Yamagata is a quietly creative force with a voice like an old-school jazz chanteuse. Tightrope Walker finds her embracing her experimental side, her traditional piano and guitar joined by strings and harmonies, found sounds and samples. “Rainsong”, an otherwise straight-up piano ballad, opens with the tinny sound of rain recorded on an iPhone and a sample of French poetry; “EZ Target” turns the entire contents of a garden shed into percussion. In both cases the effect is transformative rather than gimmicky; the clatter of pans and taut strings on the latter in particular creating something part-exotic, part-chaotic.
But the melodies, and Yamagata’s rich, husky voice, remain the centre of proceedings, even on a song like the gorgeous “I’m Going Back”, where it’s a minute and a half before the vocal kicks in. The writer’s newfound devotion to experimental soundscapes never gets in the way of just how damn listenable these songs are. “Nobody” is sensuous and seductive, “Let Me Be Your Girl” a rich, immersive daydream. And “Over” drags the breakup song firmly into grown-up territory: no recriminations, no regrets, just rationality and a radio-friendly melody.
Rachael Yamagata plays Glasgow’s Mono on Tuesday, 22nd November. Tickets are available now.