Sound — 9
Released in 2004, Happenstance by Rachael Yamagata did not make as big a splash as its record label, BMG had hoped. It fared fairly well for a debut album, peeking at 33 on the Billboard 200, but its singles were ignored, and reviews were mostly mediocre. However, her debut is still a mightily impressive record, with a consistency one doesn't often encounter. The band sounds extremely clean and polished, especially on the bluesy "I Want You" and extremely beautiful on "Even So" with its lush string arrangements. All the songs on the album are strong, especially the first three tracks, "Be Be Your Love" (featured in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") "Letter Read" and "Worn Me Down". While she could be described as an alternative rock singer, I find her having a more bluesy sound, especially the band itself which makes use of subdued drum beats and smokey guitar lifts. Yet, it is toward the end of the album, after lightly rocking her listener for the most part that Rachael begins to slow down, replacing drums with lightly strumming guitars and simple piano arrangements. "The Reason Why" is a beautiful piano ballad, showcasing not only her playing skills, but her skills as a writer as well. "Quiet" and the bonus track "Ode To..." end up being the most impressive tracks on the album as Rachael softly croons over departed lovers using impressive acoustic guitar work.
Lyrics — 9
The lyrics in Happenstance seem to get better as the album progresses. Her first three "poppier" tracks are simple enough and not really quite fulfilling from an artistic and poetic standpoint. When she reaches "Paper Doll" however, her tone seems to get more personal and capture the listener. While her record label may have had her commercialize the first few tracks, Rachael is seem to take more control on the later ones, especially the last few. Often singing of broken relationships, her work can tend to get depressing at times, especially "Even So" which features a train at the end riding off into the distance. The fear of isolation and people walking out on her seems to be a huge theme in her work, and would especially prove to be true on her sophomore album. For example, the opening lines of "Quiet" are "Baby says I can't come with him. And I had read all of this in his eyes. Long before he even said so Why go, I asked." Her voice is so in touch with her emotions that it makes every song later in the album feel meaningful. She is able to do amazing things with her voice, crooning at times, and then rolling sounds from her throat on "I Want You".
Overall Impression — 9
Rachael Yamagata is one of the most important US singer/songwriters of the last decade because of her ability to match her emotions with her voice. There are no fillers on the album, showcasing years and years of work that she has put it. While the second side is significantly stronger than the first in terms of lyrical poetry, the first side it still quite catchy. There's truly nothing wrong about a good pop song. Overall, it's an extremely important album, hitting deep on themes of isolation and the struggle to fall blindly into love. Highly recommended for all listeners.