As opening statements go, Jenny Owen Youngs’ 2005 debut album Batten the Hatches was a bold one. It wasn’t the loudest album, in fact, musically, it traced lines between indie folk, alt-country, pop and even a few tracks with a husky, Tom Waits quality. But when Youngs sings, she doesn’t hold back. Her voice can go from a breathy coo to a full-throated siren’s wail-indeed, it’s her greatest asset, tied with her acerbic wit and brutal honesty. It’s a rare talent that can make a minor hit out of a song that repeats the phrase “what the fuck was I thinking” about a dozen times.
On sophomore effort Transmitter Failure, however, Youngs actually has turned up the volume quite a bit. While Batten the Hatches certainly had energy, Transmitter Failure funnels that same pep through Marshall stacks, resulting in a great power pop album that still retains Youngs’ cleverness and melodic grace. The album’s first single “Led to the Sea” may come as a bit of a surprise to those fond of Youngs’ prior album; it opens with a distorted, super-catchy riff, backed by an unexpectedly heavy rhythm section. Yep, this song rocks.
While the album may get off to a somewhat explosive start, Youngs casts a wide net on Transmitter Failure, taking her sound from that song’s fuzzy melodicism to the fuzzy jangle of “Dissolve” to the softer, sweeter approach in “Here is a Heart.” A particular standout is the rollicking single “Clean Break,” which starts off with an old-timey strut before kicking the doors open into a barn burning, Old 97s-style rocker as Youngs compares the end of a relationship to a surgical procedure: “No need for anesthetic and no need for last regrets/ just sterilize the scalpel and let’s get this over with.” And though Youngs is formidable when she sounds most pissed off, she’s quite deft at crafting a stunningly beautiful and vulnerable song like “If I Didn’t Know” or “No More Words,” which is breathtaking in its glacial sophistication.
Youngs was off to a strong start with Batten the Hatches, but with Transmitter Failure has added even more depth behind her impressive songwriting. It’s a bigger, more powerful album, but one with the same vulnerability and wit that made her previous album unique. Transmitter Failure is an invigorating listen, a compelling next step from an artist whose gifts sound good both at their most bare and backed with an ample dose of distortion.
Video: “Clean Break”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.