Listening to the reconfigured, re-released debut album (originally launched by Sauropod Records in 2005) by Jenny Owen Youngs is enough to make one believe in doppelgangers and evil twins. Surely Youngs has one. For every auspicious, stellar feat of pop songwriting on Batten the Hatches there’s a naïve, half-baked, or self-impressed sketch dressed up in glossy production. The result is a maddening back-and-forth listen, but one which can only bode well for a growing talent who gives every moment, even the least-inspired, plenty of guts and élan. Plus, this disc has already been two years in the can, during which time one would expect some hard touring and living would focus and consolidate the considerable skills on display on songs like “P.S.”, “Voice on Tape” and the attention-grabbing “Fuck Was I”.
Actually, “Fuck Was I” is an example of all that is both right and wrong with Batten the Hatches. This dysfunctional relationship song with a shock-value hook trick is charming at first, but a little too self-conscious with the endless repetition of “What the fuck was I thinking?” Overwrought lines (“Love grows in me like a tumor”) compete with truly wonderful ones (“Love plows through me like a ‘dozer / I’ve got more give than a bale of hay / And there’s always big mess left over”), and Youngs’ voice, a less mumbly, less fluttery amalgam of Jolie Holland and Regina Spektor, is just a tad too carefully controlled. Still, Dan Romer’s Rhodes organ adds a gentle touch to Patrick Petty’s sweeping cello lines, and the simple arrangement is clear and inviting.
Opener “Porchrail” is a jaunty, jazzy start to the record that sweeps and hops in just under two minutes, led by a bubbly rhythm section and a few short swells of backing vocals by Bess Rogers. “I’ve got every intention to loosen my tie,” Youngs sings, and while that impulse is made implicit and explicit throughout the record, the proceedings rarely get as ragged and hell-bent as they could, as if the watchful eye of careerism is ever-present. “Drinking Song” sports Youngs’ accomplished acoustic guitar work in its dour opening moments, “Everything I touch turns to shit / Everyone I try to love won’t hear of it,” but then the song explodes into a gussied-up, radio-ready aural hug-fest that steals the import right out of the words. It’s not that the juxtaposition of defeatist lyrics (“There’s solace at the bottom of the bottle”) with sunshine and bubblegum arrangements and melodies isn’t a worthy or interesting pursuit, but it’s just completely overcooked here. The same song sung straight with half the bells and whistles would have been much more convincing. As it’s presented, the song’s just a series of damaged-goods posturing.
The brief “P.S.” is a much more successful attempt at sad-sackism. Youngs plucks out a spirited banjo progression while delivering self-deflating lines (“I can’t make real life as good as television / One shoe on and one shoe off and I can’t pick a position”) that are much more inventive than those of “Drinking Song”. Spells of bass clarinet, French horn and strings, reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens, augments the midpoint break, adding a dash of color before the song quickly departs as charmingly as it arrived. “Coyote” is better still, sassy and snarling: “You mistake me for some southern goddess / Some delta girl done wrong / And I’m fixing to gnaw through whatever I have to / To stay stilent and get gone.” Led by a barroom piano, the song nods toward looser, more raucous territory that can match the smarts and attitude struggling to be un-battened on Batten the Hatches. Things are sure to get damn exciting if and when Youngs gets there.