Jenny Owen Youngs - An Unwavering Band of Light
Release date: February 7, 2012
Forgive me if I lack the career context to fully encapsulate the exciting talent that is Jenny Owen Youngs. My love for her and her music is rather new. To me, she was a “what’s-her-name-again?” opening up for Motion City Soundtrack’s full-album shows…until she stepped on the stage. I knew by reputation that she was a female singer-songwriter; I had no idea she was a ferocious hurricane of a woman who was going to rock my face off and send me running to her merch booth immediately after the set. That kind of feel-it-in-your-fingertips excitement is such a rarity. Thankfully, she’s encapsulated it in her wonderful new record, An Unwavering Band of Light, which is a huge step forward for her in almost every way, the best record of 2012’s abnormally strong first month and the kind of album that might only come along once or twice in an artist’s career.
Saying this is her best record is no small statement, either. Her last release, TransmitterFailure, was a fully-realized little gem that found her dabbling in all sorts of sounds, but its one flaw was a sense of safeness and fragility in the production. Compared to the primal thunder of her Black-Keys-ish, drum-and-guitar crunch live, it just lacked muscle. Thankfully, she addressed this concern across the board with huge leaps in production quality, but most notably by adding one Elliot Jacobson, a longtime collaborator of Ingrid Michaelson and a force of nature behind the kit. If you saw her live, you already knew his drumming was something to marvel at, matching and reciprocating her considerable ferocity at every turn but he truly brings the thunder on An Unwavering Band of Light. He thuds and pounds through every track with dexterity and taste, his drumbeats standing as one of the most memorable hooks in almost every song. Paired with more electric guitars and improved clarity in the production (where Transmitter was sometimes cautiously gauzy), Young’s always sturdy, carefully-crafted songs now have the power and muscle behind them to really pack the punch she’s always been working toward.
The record leaps out of the gate with the dance-able “Love for Long,” its Bo Diddley beat, hand claps and jangling guitar making for one of her most ass-shaking songs. It sounds like summertime and silly fun, with an appropriately Vampire Weekend-ish guitar lick easing in during the chorus as Youngs sings about love with an expiration date. “We’ll make the most of what we’ve got, ‘cause it won’t be love for long.” This is paired early in the album with another surging rocker, “Pirates.” A highlight of her recent live shows, the song pairs a four-on-the-floor stomp with snarling, crunchy guitars and some of her most impassioned vocals, launching into a galloping disco beat for the chorus as she intones “Love’s no good, but it sure beats the hurt” like a true skeptic. The lyrics also evince a fierce sexuality that peeks through on the record as she sings “Head back to your place, ‘cause I’ve got a roommate and he don’t wanna hear or see what you’re doing to me.” This pair of songs make the newfound grit and muscle of Jenny’s sound apparent from the start of Light.
The added muscle and improved production seem to give Youngs the inspiration to dip her toe in as many sounds as she can, and while this leads to some amazing results (check the horns cropping up throughout), it also leads to what can be considered the record's lone weak spot: a couple tracks function more as sound experiments than stand-alone tracks. “Born to Lose” has a Western melody, twangy country guitars and a snarling, distorted bass and features short moments where the drums skip into a two-step and horns blare in like a cross between the B-52’s and third wave ska. “Sleep Machine” starts with electric guitar noise, rumbling drums and a murky Rhodes and later explodes suddenly into a booming instrumental chorus loaded with mariachi horns. “Two by Two” features an ugly bouncing guitar figure over a trashed-up kit, which gives the song a sense of surly menace, setting up for a lyrical descending organ and lead guitar melody to swoop in on the chorus. None of these songs demand to be put on repeat like the rest of the record, but it’s hard to complain about a few experiments with sounds when they actually sound so damn good and are sequenced perfectly on the album to provide momentary sonic distractions from her best work.
While the added muscle and genre-pushing are the most revelatory aspects of Light, Youngs proves just as adept at more traditional singer/songwriter territory: slower and midtempo numbers. The stunning, but cynical “Why You Fall” saunters in with stick clicks and booming floor tom when a lonesome Western whistle enters and a gentle staccato piano glides in. She mumbles "I'd give up anything if you'd just let me be" like someone tired of the chase of relationships. Backing “doo doo doo”s and a spine-tingling, evocative slide guitar sweep her into the chorus, as Youngs gives her bleakest portrait of the futility of love yet, "Love is just a hole. That's why you fall."
The early ballad “Oh God”, steadily finger-picked with piano accents, is another lovely, lilting example of her skill with slower numbers and contains some of her strongest lyrics. She paints a portrait of someone so afraid of being hurt that they push away love, singing “I know how this part goes. We’ll call it casual. You say that’s fine with you, you like to keep things loose. But then some time will pass. I know you’ll tire of it. You want me carved in stone. You want the best of it.” Her skepticism about love is encapsulated even more succinctly in the line “I’ve seen a hundred backs, but never one return”. What makes the song (and the album) complex however is that under all her hard-bitten toughness, Youngs is a romantic. She sounds legitimately heartbroken in the chorus of the song, her breathy, fragile vocals nearly breaking as she sings “I can’t stay, I won’t stay. I know you’re a dream” over a bed of swelling strings.
The record’s two strongest songs fall into the midtempo and ballad range as well. The first of these, “Already Gone” begins with backwards vocal swells placed hauntingly over a simple, steady beat, muted guitars and an ethereal organ as she sings “When you go away, it gets harder to breathe. I want you to stay, but you’re looking to leave.” The song cruises along at a steady pace until a wonderful sliding lead guitar stops the groove in its tracks and the song swoons into reverbed electrics chiming under wordless vocals. “Go if you need to; how can I keep you?” Jenny pleads in her most full-throated voice as string swells carry her out of the chorus, and you realize her tough skepticism only makes the moments where Youngs is hopelessly in broken love all the more devastating.
The album's most goosebump-inducing highlight is, without a doubt, its simplest ballad, “So Long.” A loose, probing piano figure weaves in and out of the vocal as she expertly renders gnawing loneliness destroying youthful naivete. Youngs employs one of her best utilizations of imagery, singing “So you walk the path through the sea of sleepers and keep your eyes ahead” with quiet understanding and an almost hymnal gentleness. “No one was made for this, to be lonely. Keep it against your chest, this is only so long,” she intones, as Ben Thornewill and Tommy Siegel of Jukebox the Ghost join her with chilling three-part harmony on the final words. Their sympathetic backing stays with her, as if providing comfort as she sings, “No one can put you back how you were then,” nudging the song towards unmistakable, shimmering beauty. The end result is as moving a song as you’re likely to hear and the crown jewel of the album.
On her third full-length, Jenny Owen Youngs has taken the "great leap forward," advancing her already towering talents in every conceivable way. If she ever improves on An Unwavering Band of Light and its confident yet unassuming genius, watch out – we have a potential legend on our hands. Even if not, she’s made the kind of record few artists ever manage to accomplish in a career: insightful, smart, touching, jaded, melodic, tough, rocking, warm and downright wonderful. You won’t find singer/songwriter-pop this good anywhere else.
Loooong review. It was really well written and your love for the album really shows in the writing but most importantly you can justify the high score. So good job!
Personally, I wouldn't rate this album as highly as you have, I've given it a few listens and its good, sometimes very good, yet there's something missing stopping me from from really liking it. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but something feels missing. Glad you love it though.