To find her place amid the “dark chords” — the ones she says she uses in all her songs — Rachael Yamagata recites a mantra of “dead babies, dead babies.” Ah, what better way to set the mood? Once she gets started — recalling the pain of yet another failed relationship or the mixed emotions of romantic cheating — those dark chords get pushed toward the light, creating an ambitious if not yet distinct form of pop music.
Yamagata, 26 and with a background in musical theater and funk, connected with the sold-out house via unfocused banter on love lost, simple melodies and emotionally bare lyrics. It’s music that has its roots in Laura Nyro, reached a commercial apex with Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” and appeared to reach a dead end in the wake of Fiona Apple and Tori Amos. Yet Yamagata is hitting a nerve, expressing her mistreatment with a directness that’s all encompassing — she mostly vents and reflects with no hint or suggestion of revenge or even anger.
She brings a welcoming presence to the stage. And with the backing of violin, cello, guitar, drums and whatever she may play (usually piano but also acoustic guitar, bass and tambourine), the music swirls in a host of textures and timbres; Yamagata allows her voice to flow along, exposed and vulnerable, cracking if need be on a rocker and then caressing a sultry blues.
Full-length RCA debut “Happenstance” has received glowing reviews since its release a month ago but has yet to crack the top 200. Its standout tracks, “I Want You” and “Under My Skin,” were among the most affecting in performance. Show was the end of Yamagata’s first national tour; she’ll perform at the Hotel Cafe on July 19, 20, 26 and 27.