It’s easy to be cynical when picking up the debut album by 27-year-old Rachael Yamagata. The exotic good looks, the tasteful sounding jazz/blues promised by the cover quotes, the hint of kookiness and the fact that she’s worked with alt-country’s tortured boy genius Ryan Adams makes it sound like she’s been put together by some mad record company scientist seeking to create the perfect female singer/songwriter.
Yet there’s a lot more to Yamagata than the rather lazy ‘new Norah Jones‘ tag that’s been foisted upon her. Her music is a lot edgier for one thing – Happenstance deals with failed relationships, broken hearts and unrequited love and although it may sound like a record to snuggle up on the settee with, a quick examination of the lyrics shows that something darker is at work here.
Indeed, most of this album was apparently written about Yamagata’s relationship with Tom McRae – a man no stranger to brooding melancholy himself of course. Listening to tracks such as Under My Skin, Even So and The Reason Why it’s difficult not to feel a tad sorry for McRae as his former girlfriend dishes the dirt on why they broke up. It is though beautifully compelling.
A fairer comparison than Jones is Fiona Apple. Yamagata’s voice is uncannily similar to that of the famously unprolific US songstress, and she demonstrates a similar flair and verve to her piano playing as well. The criminally under-rated British songwriter Leona Naess is another reference point – indeed one of the best tracks here, Worn Me Down, is a deadringer for Naess’ Boys Like You.
The feel of the album is mostly piano ballads, with opening track Be Be My Love being a desperate plea to a would be lover (“Everybody’s talking how I can’t can’t be your love/but I want want want to be your love”) and Even So being effectively a break up note, featuring such desperately sad lyrics like “You’re gonna hate me when I tell you everything/You’re gonna question whether you really know me at all”.
Yamagata’s voice throughout is superb. She can do low and smokey, as on Be Be My Love, or passionate and raspy, as the upbeat Paper Doll demonstrates, and she sounds equally at home with both musical directions. She sounds her best though on stripped down tracks such as the gorgeous I’ll Find A Way – a song which is just crying out to be placed on a film soundtrack if it hasn’t been already.
Happenstance isn’t a flawless debut album – at 63 minutes it goes on a bit too long and some of the later tracks lean too heavily towards atmospherics rather than actual memorable tunes. But at its best, such as the perky I Want You, the bouncy Letter Sent or the folky Meet Me By The Water, Rachael Yamagata is revealed as a major new talent. Not the new Norah Jones then, but something far more interesting.