If ever a recording’s title belied its contents, Rachael Yamagata’s Happenstance would be it. Through 14 exquisitely crafted, meticulously plotted pop gems, the 27-year-old former backup vocalist exhibits a perfectionist’s attention to detail, leaving nothing to chance, an approach which turns out to be the record’s strongest quality and, paradoxically, the closest thing it has to an Achilles heel.
No one’s going to argue with Yamagata’s chops. She’s a big-throated vocalist comfortable with a variety of styles absorbed from a host of groundbreaking female artists and strong enough in her own songwriting to avoid sounding derivative or clichéd. “1963,” for instance, delivers a hybrid homage to the ’60s and ’70s singers Yamagata’s parents exposed her to as a youngster, like Roberta Flack, Carol King and Joni Mitchell; “Letter Read” combines Fiona Apple’s confessional piano comping with a sing-along chorus worthy of Aimee Mann; “I Want You” has a cabaret-jazz vibe reminiscent of Rickie Lee Jones; “Worn Me Down” is a rocker combining Shirley Manson’s grrrrrowl with some Beth Orton-like electronica accoutrements; and “I’ll Find a Way” is a piano-driven, orchestrated wonder Kate Bush would be proud of.
Vibrant and luscious arrangements accompany Yamagata’s versatile piano and adorn most of the songs. French horns, flutes and strings reveal the production aesthetics of John Alagia (Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews), and flesh out all but the barest songs in concise—if at times predictable—fashion.
And therein lies the rub. Happenstance is so well executed, so comprehensive and so clean it seems too good to be totally authentic. You virtually yearn for a moment of Chan Marshall vocal paranoia, an off-kilter Neko Case yodel, PJ Harvey’s limited range, Kristen Hersh’s warble—anything remotely flawed and human. It may seem unfair to tar Yamagata—and, believe me, it’s a light-but-telling coat—for being quite good at what she does. But these (and plenty more) gritty female singers made their mark as an honest reaction to the hermetically sealed studio perfection of records like Happenstance.
In the end, there’s nothing wrong with it—and that might be the only thing wrong with it.