[10 May 2012]
Jenny Owen Youngs’s first album, Batten the Hatches, stood out at the time, somewhat, in terms of its sound alone – it was nothing too unconventional, sticking primarily to the indie-pop toolbox of guitar, piano, light percussion, and primarily acoustic instruments, but it was very neatly and sharply produced. It sounded a little cleaner, a little more expensive than I, at least, expected from the genre at the time, accustomed as I was to the endless stacks of bedroom recordings going around. What really made the album stand out, though, and kept Jenny Owen Youngs’s name floating around in the “artists to watch” chunk of my brain, was Youngs’s singing voice. Her voice is incredibly expressive, and deeply emotionally communicative, but the emotions it communicates are frequently some of those most often avoided by largely-acoustic pop music – fury, bitter resignation, apathy. Unlike most enthralling expressions of these emotions, however, Youngs’s voice is still undeniably pretty. It’s a remarkable instrument (one that, alone, makes her a captivating performer), but also a great fit for the types of songs Youngs writes.
And despite their initially welcoming catchiness, many of the songs on her first album carried a deep weight of depression, one with more surly, lightly-drunken stupor to it than thrashing angst. The songs and their often-elegiac arrangements seemed at the time (to me at least) like the perfect tonal match for Youngs’s singing, at once both youthful and laden with experience, but what is most striking about the direction she has taken since then is how much she has evolved and changed her sound, while still making each step along the way seem like a perfect and natural fit. It’s a testament to the versatility of her voice and the quality of her arrangements and songwriting, sure, but also to a series of solid aesthetic experimentations, refinements and decisions.
While her second album, Transmitter Failure, took her music along a very-markedly-more-electric/electronic tack, with a handful of songs at least that were noticeably peppier, An Unwavering Band of Light is a surprisingly rewarding and enthusiastic fusion of the first two albums’ vibes – the music still sounds expensive and cleanly-produced, but it jumps all over the place in terms of mood, from lushly quiet hymns to wildly ebullient declamations, without ever feeling jarring or lacking stylistic coherence.
The intro and verses of “Your Apartment” sound, vocals aside, like they could be Transatlanticism-era Death Cab, and that’s no bad thing – it’s very, very solid – but the chorus takes on a unique and jaunty life of its own, all bouncily-plonking piano chords and smooth horns, Youngs’s softly bright vocals here bearing little of their usual edge. Coming right after the infectiously upbeat-sounding and energetic “Love for Long”, it seems to serve the dual purposes of expanding the tonal palette while still keeping the energy from ramping down. “Pirates” is a stand-out, likewise, because its quick stomping beat gives Youngs a great platform to show off her superb (and superbly emotive) vocal control, her voice always clear and relaxed but still dripping bitter defiance.
But even “Love for Long” isn’t as one-note as a quick listen might make it seem, and it’s not just because of Youngs’s vocals that seem to darkly drawl even as they get up and shout – the lyrics take a sour turn of their own, later continuing on through “Your momma’s heart is surely bound to break / The day they finally drag up that like / Science tells us bones won’t turn to mud / No matter how you wish that they would” and “We’ll burn like demons and leave them screaming”. You’d still never mistake it for a metal song, sure, but for people who like gorgeous acoustic-heavy arrangements and are still grumpy enough about life to resent or at least need at break from the most supremely twee of stylings, it’s a dourly pleasant combination, as is the rest of An Unwavering Band of Light.