When first introduced to Rachael Yamagata’s full-length debut “Happenstance,” most listeners and critics compare her to Fiona Apple. But although Yamagata’s smoky vocals and jazz-inflected piano playing do bear a striking resemblance to that of the waifish, angry songstress of late ’90s rock, their similarities end here.
The music that this 26-year-old from Chicago makes is not nearly as heavy or dark as Apple’s, despite the fact that most of the tracks are about failed romances.
She can be moody, yes, but there’s a bit more of the hopeless-romantic-in-spite-of-herself present here and a little less crack-addict-who’s-about-to-cut-herself.
In “1963,” a feel-good number that floats on sighing background vocals, Yamagata sings, “I feel like I’m loving you in 1963 / Flowers in my hair / Little bitty hearts upon my cheek / Baby, you’ll be on my mind / ‘Til I kiss you next time.”
Her music is lighter and simpler in this sense, so that while her lyrics could come off as na?ve or clich?, their delivery never lacks for substance or genuine emotion, such as in the excellent first track, “Be Be Your Love,” in which a slurring, weighted snare sets the waltzing movement. Then, her voice and piano enter, and their melody lines tiptoe above on a tightrope until, backed by a plaintive string section and french horn, the song breaks into the yearning wail of its chorus.
It seems that Yamagata can never stay rooted in bitter pessimism either, especially in “Letter Read,” when she goes from the heated ricochet (and most Fiona-esque sound) of the initial demand, “My love, how could you do this to me? My love, you were supposed to be,” to the unabashedly honest, sing-along confession: “I’m afraid and I can’t breathe, / and I’m in love with you / But you are not with me.” (Really, it sounds better than it reads.)
“Under My Skin” is another example of Yamagata’s fresh phrasing and understated charm, as the lines, “Would you please get out from under my skin / ’cause I can’t begin this yet / And I don’t know what my intentions are / They’re speaking in a different tongue,” are sung with a mixture of caution and vulnerability.
The string section, arranged beautifully by Oliver Kraus, has a significant presence on this album. Violin whispers and ethereal cello hums permeate many songs (“Moments with Oliver,” “Quiet”), and the cello especially makes the perfect compliment to Yamagata’s husky voice.
However, sometimes the arrangements feel a bit much. For example, “Worn Me Down” loses the appeal it had on her five-song EP and becomes suffocated by mindless layers of radio-ready, pre-programmed filling. This dumbed-down makeover is courtesy of producer John Alagia, who also gave artists like Jason Mraz and John Mayer the same treatment to prime them for Top 40 charts.
Despite this sacrifice, however, “Happenstance” is still strong as a whole, and Yamagata deserves the mainstream success for which she is aiming.
Bottom line: listen to Fiona’s “Tidal” when it’s pouring out and you feel like the world can’t even begin to understand your brooding complexity; listen to “Happenstance” when it’s just a fine drizzle, and you feel like everyone deserves a second chance.