Time was not so long ago when any young woman with a guitar was either a staunch feminist (and why not?) or some equally left-leaning politico with more issues than tissues (of tunes). Well-meaning, but uneasy listening. The male-dominated arena was kicked open in the early ’90s by motorbike-booted PJ Harvey with her banshee caterwaul of creativity and scarred emotions and a way with a post-punky tune. This, surely was the time to storm the barricades.
The lineage of female alt-rock performers has a heady ancestry. For every Poetess of Weird there bequeaths a worthy acolyte… or something. And there a thousand who fall by the wayside of mediocrity. From Patti Smith there came PJ Harvey. From PJ we get KT Tunstall (herself a PJ fan, even down to the name-style). And so, from KT we get… Jenny Owen Youngs?
Jenny Owen Youngs is supporting Kate Nash on tour in the United States as Batten The Hatches gets its UK release. She ticks all the boxes of feisty, bruised love songs detailing the unpickings and lumpy bits of love. All the cursing, drinking and drowning of sorrows are played out in simple, sweet arrangements. So far, so KT. But this American includes more experimental elements (witness the sparse electronica backing of Lightning Rod), English folkie Kate Rusby, the confessional early work of Liz Phair, but mostly early Everything But The Girl (before they discovered the dancefloor) and Beth Orton. So far, so promising.
The opening salvo of tracks would seem to back up these assumptions when they start with the one-two punch of breezy strum and jazzy shuffle of opener Porchrail’s belief that ‘there’s nothing more attractive than the one thing you can’t have’ and the scratchy voyeuristic From Here. The rueful Fuck Was I shakes its head to a delicate cello and guitar backing to thinking gone astray: “Maybe I’ll be the special one who doesn’t get burnt.”
The hushed intimacy of Voice On Tape feels like Youngs is practically falling out of the speakers into your room as she unfolds these apparent wisps of songs. But this closeness and mid-paced, mild-mannered swaddling of any spark over the course of an album is its curse as it inevitably ends up sounding like a whinging teenager painting beige, mid-paced ruminations on love and all of its complexities. Musical wallpaper, with a dash of acoustic angst? Changing wombs?
But just when all hope appears bland, along comes the euphoric Drinking Song which bursts forth with its acoustic chorus of finding “solace at the bottom of the bottle” with clipped (gasp!) electric guitar and full band backing to give these wisps some much-needed meat to their too-thin bones.
The closing two tracks sum up the best and worst on offer here. Both ostensibly ‘bonus’ tracks, the first is an electronica reinterpretation of Woodcut to fashion it as a towering gothic spookfest of boys being just “notches on bedposts”, to shivering effect. The last is a perfunctory acoustic ‘ironic’ cover of Nelly (see what’s possible with the same track by picking up Tiga‘s version). It spoils what is otherwise a half-decent little album. Not one to trouble the charts or your memory, but while it’s there its charms and character are a welcome distraction.