I first stumbled across Rachael Yamagata when browsing the "used" bins of my favorite music store. Then I came across an EP with a pretty young woman, wearing a sloachy sweater and leaning on a chain-link fence. It had the grittier look of an atypical pop album, and the music backed it up -- as soon as I heard Yamagata's singing, I knew that she was a future hitmaker.
Her full-length debut "Happenstance" just shows that I was completely right. Without sounding repetitive, former electrofunk singer Yamagata follows similar musical turf, exploring saddening love in all its dimensions, with her husky voice and piano-pop sound.
It opens on a piano-jazzy number with "Letter Read," which is the best song that Fiona Apple never sang. In fact, the whole album has a similar flavour, albeit a sadder one, with Yamagata chastising lovers for betrayals, lamenting the distance between them, and telling them how "everybody's talkin' how I can't can't can't be your love/ but I want want want to be your love."
Along the way, she delves into snarly indierock ("she's so pretty/she's so damn right/but I'm so tired of thinking about her tonight!"), melancholy acoustic ballads, piano numbers that sound like they were recorded on a rainy day, and jazzy pop.
In "1963," Yamagata takes a break into 60s-style pop and sunny love affairs, announcing, "I find it to be magical/I feel like I'm lovin' you in 1963/Flowers in my hair/little bitty hearts upon my cheek/baby you'll be on my mind/till I kiss you next time." And the Japanese version of this album also has an extra track from her debut EP: "Collide," a melancholy, cello-laden song.
Even touring with Gomez and Liz Phair, Yamagata was relatively little-known before "Happenstance" came out. But her work has a raw, smoky quality that many twenty-something pop stars can only dream on. Listening to these, it's easy to imagine being in a dark club, listening to Yamagata up on a stage.
One of the rare things about Yamagata is that her age is indefinably just by listening to her -- she could be anywhere from fifteen to fifty. Yamagata does bump up against her vocal limitations in "Letter Read"; she sounds very strained in the chorus. At least it's assuring that her voice was untouched by computers. Most of the time, though, she sounds like an indiepop version of Norah Jones -- smoky, smooth and very pretty.
Yamagata -- who wrote most of the songs, and cowrote the others -- plays the piano in her assorted songs, as well as a bit of keyboard and synth. And she is backed up by a very talented band that weaves some extra instrumentation behind her, using drums, bass, guitars and sometimes the cello in a way that is startlingly soft.
Yamagata's poignant full-length debut makes her sound like Fiona Apple's sadder little sister. It's a collection of melancholy and heartbreak, wrapped up in piano tunes. An underrated little gem.