Rachael Yamagata: Collide

From a self-titled EP (Arista Private Music, 2003)

Rachael Yamagata: 1963

From Happenstance (RCA, 2004)

As a music critic, I joke with my colleagues that I always have one token non-hip-hop artist I rally for every year. In the past, it’s been Aimee Mann, then Rufus Wainwright (not for one, but two different years – like whoa). This year, I’m feeling Chicago singer/songwriter Rachael Yamagata and not just because she’s half-Asian (though given my basic ethnocentricity, it doesn’t hurt).

When listening to Yamagata, one is tempted to think of both Norah Jones and Michelle Branch, coincidentally also hapa (go figure).The Jones comparison is more apt – the two both have similar voices: warm, a little husky, and sexy without being overtly seductive. To be sure, Jones doesn’t have the most gilded of throats and neither does Yamagata – on some songs, like “The Reason Why,” she strains to achieve the kind of poignant, quiet intensity that someone like Sarah McLaughlin has made a career out of and Yamagata just isn’t quite there yet. That said, Yamagata has a compelling character in her nuances and tone. She shares similar qualities as a Melissa Ethridge or Sarah Harmer and I appreciate that grittier edge – like Yamagata’s been spending quality time singing in honky tonks.

As for the Branch comparison, on some tracks, especially “Letter Read,” there are these moments of pop shine that seem destined for Radio Alice rotation. I don’t remotely mean this to be a criticism – I don’t want to hear 14 songs of moody ballads (unless it’s Chet Baker but that’s another story) – gimme something to smile over, something that makes me want to roll down the window and listen to with the wind in my face. Yamagata’s got that quality – I pulled out “1963” off of this year’s Happenstance album to make that point. The vocal harmonies on the chorus, combined with the strong piano presence, is clearly soul/gospel influenced and it imbues an uplifting, emotive swing onto the song. I’m not sure what “I feel like I’m loving you in 1963” is supposed to mean, especially since I’m not even sure she alive in 1973, let alone putting flowers in her hair and falling madly in love back in ’63. But hey, poetic license right?

Still, my favorite song by her is from her 2003 EP: “Collide.” It that haunting piano melody that keeps rewinding through the song: powerful without being aggressive and it anchors the song solidly, especially when a cello accompanies it midway through. Add in the drum loop that gives the song a touch of funk and finally factor in Yamagata’s remorseful lyrics that begin with the enigmatic, “I’ll fascinate you…for a while” and this song can do no wrong.

Last reason I like Yamagata: on Happenstance, she has a song called “Moments With Oliver” – a short, but affecting cello duet. It’s like she was chilling with me and I didn’t even know it. Holla back hon.