Her voice is sweet and sonorous, delicately inhabiting elegant trilling arrangements sun-kissed with baroque warmth. Though mildly reminiscent of Regina Spektor, Jenny Owen Youngs is less the bubbly bohemian than the saucy neighbor whose natural beauty disguises a brash forthrightness.
Indeed, the most arresting track from her self-released 2005 debut, Batten the Hatches, is "Fuck Was I" (as in, "What the fuck was I thinking?"). The pretty melody waltzes over a lilting cello line, as Youngs describes the love in her chest as a tumor, "a parasite bent on devouring its host." Castigating herself because she should've known better, Youngs makes the song crackle with an emotional intensity coolly delivered, with a keen-enough edge to recall the best cuts on Liz Phair's seminal debut Exile in Guyville. The track found its way into an episode of Weeds, which begot a deal from Nettwerk and the album's re-release in 2007.
Youngs graduated with a degree in composition from SUNY-Purchase, where she met most of her backing band. She relates it as a time when whiskey flowed like beer, and she learned most of what she knows about music outside the classroom. But she won't pass off the stories of ill-fated romantic liaisons that dot her debut like picked-over scabs as the result of intoxication, alcoholic or otherwise.
"I'd like to blame anything but myself directly for my bad decisions, but the fact of the matter is, I've got what it takes to ruin my life at my core," she offers from a tour stop in Portland, Ore.
Youngs garnered additional attention around the time of her debut's re-release when she recorded a split single with U.K. singer-songwriter Dave House, featuring a cover of "Hot in Herre," recast as elegant folk. She handles the salacious trash-talking pop piffle with an ardor and assurance that made it a fan favorite, to her later chagrin.
"It's a double-edged sword. It's great because you can engage people and they're like, 'Yeah!' But it's a slippery slope," Youngs says. "You can become the 'Hot in Herre' girl, where you've played a song probably more times than Nelly, and people are like, 'What about that song, are you going to play it?' You feel like a trained monkey."
What Youngs is feeling mostly these days is better about her life. Absent the unpleasantness that surrounded the writing of Batten the Hatches, her May release, Transmitter Failure, isn't as emotionally raw or "bloody" as she puts it. "It's just a little less introspective, I guess, both sonically—if you can apply introspection to sonics—and also lyrically."
The exception is "Here Is a Heart," which offers her "battered and braised, grilled and sautéed" organ to a friend in the shadow of nearby hospital equipment. Stung by reports of cancer that struck four friends and acquaintances within weeks of each other, it's a powerful mediation on mortality and the helpless anxiety of watching someone you love waste away.
"It's just a messy thing, and one doesn't know what to do in these situations, especially not the first time.... That's the one sad song, and then the rest of the album is a bunch of bullshit love songs," Youngs says, with characteristic candor.
When you wear your heart on your sleeve, it's bound to get dirty, but Youngs' realizes nothing in nature is ever unsullied, and that grimy, painful reality is what makes her music so powerful.
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That sounds great, John. You're nominated! Get started on planning it.