Plumbiferous Media

Transmitter Failure - Jenny Owen Youngs

May 28th 2009
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Transmitter Failure - Jenny Owen YoungsJenny Owen Youngs
Transmitter Failure
Score: 45

Jen­ny Owen Youngs’s musi­cal career start­ed ear­ly in life with the flute, and lat­er the tuba. She even­tu­al­ly took up the gui­tar, and has since pro­duced two full-length albums, the sec­ond of which, Trans­mit­ter Fail­ure came out on the 26th. While Youngs’s remark­ably ver­sa­tile voice (com­pare “First Per­son” to “Clean Break”) has pro­vid­ed the foun­da­tion for a num­ber of strong tracks on Trans­mit­ter Fail­ure, enough oth­er ele­ments of the album remain some­what under­de­vel­oped, and as a result, the album appears only half-baked.

Aside from the sim­ple and some­what shrill forty sec­ond intro­duc­tion to the album, Trans­mit­ter Fail­ure starts off on a very good note. “Led to the Sea” not only shows off Youngs’s unique vocals but has some of the most pow­er­ful and some­how inter­est­ing (as they are very sim­ple) bass and drum lines of the album, and all of the sounds mesh remark­ably well, cre­at­ing an aggre­gate sound that clear­ly reflects the lyrics of the track. “Dis­solve,” arguably the strongest track of the album, con­tin­ues with the excel­lent, sim­ple instru­men­tals, vocals, and sound mesh­ing, and yet man­ages to sound entire­ly dif­fer­ent. The instru­men­tals are so well designed on these first few tracks that the lat­er frag­ment­ed gui­tar lines, unin­ter­est­ing sounds, and extreme­ly heav­i­ly dis­tort­ed bass that per­vade many of the lat­er tracks are extreme­ly shocking.

On “Clean Break” though, the vocals clear­ly tri­umph. The absolute­ly pow­er­ful, not-quite-grind­ing voice is con­trast­ed with the light and breathy vocals that imme­di­ate­ly fol­low while the entire track is pushed for­ward by a clear, but not over­pow­er­ing drum line and a sim­ply excel­lent gui­tar solo. The end­ing, in which mul­ti­ple back­ing voic­es enter only to sing in uni­son with Youngs is there­fore all the more dis­ap­point­ing; not only do the back­ing vocals not match up to Youngs’s voice, but they always seem to lag behind slightly.

While Trans­mit­ter Fail­ure cer­tain­ly has some extreme­ly inter­est­ing aspects, these must be con­trast­ed with the less suc­cess­ful aspects. Though Youngs’s voice is in excel­lent form on tracks such as “Clean Break,” on tracks such as “First Per­son” she falls too often into a slight­ly harsh, occa­sion­al­ly out of tune sound, which, along with occa­sion­al­ly mis­placed empha­sis, can become grat­ing. At the same time, how­ev­er, Youngs has used this odd pat­tern to set excel­lent, fast-mov­ing seg­ments of sev­er­al tracks.

Though “Led to the Sea” has its issues, it also con­tains one of the bet­ter musi­cal phras­es of the album, accom­pa­nied by the admit­ted­ly pecu­liar lyrics “Observe Exhib­it A / Who nev­er learned to stay” and “Pound it into the dirt / To try and make it work.” But if Youngs has clear­ly mas­tered any­thing on this album, it’s the use of tru­ly bizarre lyrics to tell a sto­ry. On the slight­ly can­ni­bal­is­tic love song “Here is a Heart,” she sings of prepar­ing a heart for a lover “Bat­tered and braised / Grilled and sautéed / Just how you like it.” With the lat­er men­tions of “blood of my blood” and “rationing off bits of myself,” the track takes on a ghast­ly cast made more pro­found, and even slight­ly com­i­cal, by the gen­tle nature of Youngs’s vocals and the instru­men­tals on that track.

Where Trans­mit­ter Fail­ure suf­fers, then, is when Youngs’s vocals are undu­ly ham­pered by the oth­er aspects of the music. About halfway through the album, the col­or­ful melodies and well-com­posed instru­men­tals are replaced by frankly gener­ic ver­sions which fail to com­ple­ment Youngs’s vocals. In addi­tion, the occa­sion­al intro­duc­tion of back­ing vocals nev­er fails to dam­age promis­ing tracks on Trans­mit­ter Fail­ure - none of the singers can quite match Youngs’s cre­ativ­i­ty, and it shows.

While the ear­ly por­tion of Trans­mit­ter Fail­ure is quite orig­i­nal and well-cre­at­ed, once it pass­es Clean Break, it falls into medi­oc­rity. Gone are the tru­ly per­turb­ing lyrics of “Here is a Heart” and the base­line of “Led to the Sea,” replaced instead with the vague­ly inter­est­ing sub­sti­tutes of “No More Words” or “Last Per­son.” How­ev­er, even with these less inter­est­ing tracks, Youngs has retained some of the orig­i­nal­i­ty which gives her music its charm. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Trans­mit­ter Fail­ure has too many sub-par tracks and ele­ments to tru­ly be a success.

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