by Al Kaufman
What sets Jenny Owen Youngs apart from the other girls with guitars is her versatility. She can get all potty-mouthed like Liz Phair one second, then snuggle up on your lap and ask you to stroke her hair the next. She’s tough and vulnerable, glib and confessional. Plus she has a beautiful, purring voice, is able to write a hook that nuzzles right into the crook of your neck and stays there, and plays the sexiest ukulele ever.
On her debut CD, 2007’s Batten the Hatches, she demonstrated her songwriting prowess on two standout songs. “Fuck Was I” is a gorgeously depressing ballad, belied by its title. The song received prominence on the Showtime series, Weeds, but failed to catapult Youngs into the stardom she richly deserves. “Drinking Song,” with its bop-along chorus, “There’s solace at the bottom of a bottle,” even more craftily displays her ability to mix emotions through lyric and melody.
In many ways, Transmitter Failure continues where Batten the Hatches left off, but in other ways it is that much better. Youngs continues to write in a no holds barred style, choosing to serve up her emotions in a Picadilly style buffet rather than on fine china. In speaking of her heart to an inexplicably unattentive lover, she sings that her organ is “Battered and braised, grilled and sauteed/ Just how you like it.” The in your face imagery, combined with the song’s beautiful vulnerability, easily recalls “Fuck Was I,” except this one can receive radio airplay. “Last Person,” a happy little ditty about trying to attract the last person on the barstool, is a perfect sequel to “Drinking Song.” Except here, she actually tries to entice someone to try something that may be even better than getting drunk.
Lots of other stuff on here has that grand pop feel. Big, juicy guitars lead the cheerfully melodic “Led to the Sea,” until one realizes the song is about giving up on a relationship. “Observe exhibit A who never learned to stay/ There’s nothing in you for the light to hit,” she sings in an almost cheerful tone. “Dissolve,” “Secrets,” and “Clean Break” follow almost the same formula, but are different enough to still be interesting. “Clean Break” has a show tune feel to it, but contains lines such as “Don’t bother with the table, we can do it on the floor” and “Just sterilize the scalpel and let’s get this over with/ We’ve got muscle to transect.” Not your usual Broadway fodder.
Like Batten the Hatches, Transmitter Failure sputters a bit in the second half, but is saved at the end by “Start + Stop,” in which Youngs again pulls out her ukulele and drawls and mumbles her way through a simple and beautiful love song. It’s Youngs fully exposed and open for inspection, just like she wants to be. Her exhibit should not be missed.