Fellow CoS writer, Will Hines, noted recently that there is a dearth of male crooners while the ranks of solo ladies wielding microphones to great effect continue to rise. He tells the truth. The pool of talented female voices stretches wide. From the sidelines, however, some try to weed out deserving divas if only to whittle down the crowd to make it smaller for easier cataloging and coverage. Such dealings are lazy and misguided. Give talent its due, regardless of surroundings, or get out of the way.
Jenny Owen Youngs is one of the aforementioned divas. Yes, we’re talking about the same woman that released Batten the Hatches; if you were expecting version 2.0, you’re out of luck. Transmitter Failure destroys the foundation of Batten, opting to start a new edifice. Similar to Matt and Kim in the “just don’t give a…” category, it seems she knows people will either like or dislike a move, and either way it’s cool with her. Check out her cover of “Hot in Herre”. It stands as a shining moment of misogyny from the Band-Aid known as Nelly. Youngs likes it, so she recorded it. Middle fingers to you, indie hipster.
“I did not want to end up touring for another three years on a record that wouldn’t offer people the opportunity to move,” said Youngs. So, Transmitter Failure rises on the wings of pop and rock – the same genre that claims Mandy Moore, Kelly Clarkson, et al. (and that’s no dig at Moore or Clarkson). It is a genre much maligned and little defended. That makes sense because defending it has usually meant finger pointing from the “holier-than-thous”, and yet, both Clarkson and Moore have defenders with credibility. It’s also the aural home of Regina Spektor and Ingrid Michaelson. Jenny Owen Youngs fits right in, and with an album like Transmitter Failure, it is becoming more and more difficult to make the case that these women are sacrificing taste for appeal. Failure is a seamless construction of the two.
“Here is a Heart” melodiously coos vulnerability, all while serving up a simple hook. “Clean Break” borrows gypsy, old-world folkism to add sincerity to a breakup song, or as Youngs calls it, “a get away from me, you make me sick and I make myself sick” song. “Secrets” shows Youngs in vocal abandonment surrounded by horns as if it were the ’80s, and the track was sandwiched between Debbie Harry and “Come on Eileen” in a radio playlist. This range – all while staying within the same milieu and sounding current – is the singular reason Transmitter Failure succeeds. Mixing a pop record is a nightmare. The pitfall of overproduction is most threatening in this genre, than any other genre. Only twice does Owens fall into the pit: on the overly long “No More Words” and the title tune “Transmitter Failure”; yet neither track errs terribly. “Transmitter Failure” only goes wrong toward the coda, starting out agreeably.
Lyrically, Youngs opts for straightforward relationship songs and songs of self discovery. It feels right. Had she sought out the current style of hack/faux poetry too unintelligible to pull meaning from, the college freshman English majors might have applauded it; however, it would have profited no one. As it stands, these are songs to share in the car with your significant other on Sunday afternoon. These are songs of communication failure, sure, but of the less depressing variety. Don’t think too hard about them. Just let them waft gently from the speakers.
This album is no perfect record; however, underestimating it is the more likely route most will take after hearing it. Jenny Owen Youngs says of Transmitter Failure it’s an album concerning communication or lack there of. Do not miss the message. Do not shelve this record, mentally filing it into the “I’m-too-hard-for-this” bin. Instead, allow the record to catch hold of you and pull you in, holding you fast with its singability. This is a pop record, and as Jerry Seinfeld might say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”