Happenstance is Yamagata's debut long-player; it is a logical and delightful follow-up to her acclaimed, self-titled EP. It features 13 listed tracks that are either self-penned or written in collaboration with producer John Alagía (John Mayer, Josh Kelly) and mentor/guitarist Kevin Salem. The cuts "Worn Me Down" and "Reason Why" carry over, but they have been completely re-recorded. It is an unabashedly lush, deeply textured pop record that makes no apologies for its radio-friendliness or its adornments. This album's elegance reflects a willingness to overreach--emotionally as well as in production. Yamagata's voice is full of elliptical slides and slurs; it swoops, croons, rasps, and whispers; it looks for the crack in a lyric in order to reveal the depth behind it. One can hear that same quality in vocalists such as John Martyn, Billie Holiday, the young Rod Stewart, Dinah Washington, Maggie Bell, and Jeff Buckley. That context embodies within it a certain kind of approach, one that fuses grace with grit, and passion with pathos, but also the slow, erotic burn of control and restraint, where heartache becomes the river on which everything is carried; it is given a voice, an unvarnished utterance. In its grain, phrasing is also a vehicle: for something that lies just beyond the scope of actual words pointing down and in, not out. It contains the pastoral languor of a summer afternoon combined with the emotional intensity of a gleaming stiletto opening a vein. The similarity here is in the quality of performance. Listeners can definitely hear traces of her influences, but these are woven into a fabric that serves the song, not the singer.
These tomes are haunted with the poetry of time-worn ghosts: Unrequited love, dislocation, desire, loss, anger, all drift and hover here, but sometimes, these songs offer the acceptance that allows these spirits to move on. There is a striking melodic and lyric balance weighted by the tension held between idealism and the sad, world-weariness of an assaulted, oft-betrayed heart. "Worn Me Down," with its killer U2 hook and deep strings, is the obvious single, but it's far from the best track here. The new version, with organic drums, spacy keyboards, and Salem's lead guitar shimmer, would be an anthem were it not for its lyric honesty. The strummed acoustic guitar that introduces "Meet Me by the Water" carries within it the murky terrain between a country ballad and jazzy pop song. In the middle of the track, Yamagata's piano makes room for Salem's slide guitar as he places a melody line from Stewart's "Mandolin Wind" down in the bridge. The lean blue-eyed soul in "1963" offers an entirely different dimension to Yamagata's vocal prowess that makes it a tough, sensual love song. "Even So" offers its confession of betrayal in a deliberately slow, gradually revealing narrative that cuts deep, revealing the harsh truth in the lyric without artifice. The album officially ends with "Quiet," a forlorn lullaby that glides into desolation in waltz time. Oliver Kraus' cello and the two pianos carry the melody and vocal lines into a kind of finality that never rules out the beauty of memory or the glimmer of hope that lies in all brokenness, the truth of which is borne out by a final, hidden track. Happenstance is a fine debut offering; Yamagata delivers the full weight of her talent as it now stands.