Sultry singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata burst onto the scene some time last fall with a five-song EP that could barely contain powerful hooks and sorrowful heartbreak sung masterfully to the tune of jazz-infused pop. Bearing a remarkable resemblance to songsmiths Nora Jones and Fiona Apple, however, it wasn’t clear at the time if she could set herself apart from the pack despite her talents. On her first full-length album, Happenstance, Yamagata does just that. In addition to a couple remixes of tracks from her debut EP, she adds a dozen new and vibrant tracks that reveal both her unmatched talent as well as her versatility as a songwriter. Her songs continue to dwell on the theme of heartache, but her poignant lyrics, imaginative and innovative compositions, and sensual touch explore every exquisite laceration of the human heart found in various states of fragility.
Yamagata wastes no time or sound space, and her attention to detail is palpable from the outset. The first track, “Be Be Your Love”, opens with a throbbing drumbeat reminiscent of the pounding of a lover’s heart, setting the tone for the rest of the album’s concept and brilliantly contrasting the warmth and beauty of Yamagata’s breathy vocals. Yamagata’s voice is one of those rare gifts, a vocal quality that is instantly recognizable and distinctive, yet somehow classic, with an incredible range that covers both the sensual lows and the tender, melancholy highs. While each track is excellent, and the opening track is no exception, it is not until the “Letter Read”, the album’s second track, that her genius for songwriting is revealed. The track opens with a low register piano ostinato backed with a heavy drumbeat that acquires the flavor of a Fiona Apple song, at least until Yamagata drops into the chorus, which is truly where her talent lies. While the verse is rocking along at an even-handed pace, suddenly it’s as if a the chorus drops out of the clear blue sky like manna from heaven unleashing the kind of relentlessly catchy and exuberant hook that leaves you with chills. On “Under My Skin” she takes this trick to startlingly beautiful heights as she opens with a deceptively simple rhythmic piano riff which slowly unravels to unveil a sweet percussion driven melody that floats on cushions of airy guitars. Her versatile use of popular song form and her unique talent for incorporating unexpected timbres comes together beautifully on “I Want You”, which is at its heart nothing more than a little tune about longing and obsession, but through Yamagata’s use of horns, winds, curious rhythms and curiouser piano melodies turns her heartbreak into a vaudevillian circus act wherein her amazing vocal acrobatics occupy center-stage.
When she isn’t writing intelligent piano-driven pop, she’s creating ballads so classic you’ll wonder where you heard them before. The intoxicatingly soulful ballad “I’ll Find a Way” reveals a melody so simple and moving it could have been a hymn, yet her raw and decidedly secular vocals burn with an unholy flame. If you still haven’t found faith in Yamagata, turn your hymnal to “Quiet” where simple broken piano chords back poignant broken-hearted lyrics sung with a lilting sweetness that pierces even the thick-skin of even the most jaded soul. More than mere tear-erkers, it’s because of songs like these that the phrase “its better to have loved and lost” endures. Every track is treated with the same thoughtful T.L.C. such that any one of them could be considered “radio-worthy”, yet somehow there is an overall wholeness to the album beyond the apparent leitmotif of lost love. While it seems a cliché now, watch out for the “hidden” track at the album’s close. After a long period of silence, her voice reappears like a desert mirage, seducing the ears back into the siren’s grasp.
Yamagata’s songs, while innovative, have a tenacious timeless quality. Although each song is crafted with the details in mind, she never seems to lose the bigger picture as each track is wholly uncluttered with trendy bells, beats, or computer generated vocal modulations. The one exception is, ironically, what is most likely slated to be her radio single, “Worn Me Down”, which is the only example of a song on the album that seems pinned-down by the orchestration, the song’s straight-forward melody gasping for air under the heavy handed rock and roll über -production. Fortunately, a better mix of the song can be found on her debut EP, as well as an earlier mix of “Reason Why”, which sounds good in its newer stripped down form, but is worth a listen in its more fleshed out original interpretation. It takes a great songwriter to show how few great songwriters ever really come along, and Rachael Yamagata’s latest effort proves just that. Keep an ear out for this one.