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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