Review: Jenny Owen Youngs – An Unwavering Band Of Light

An Unwavering Band Of Light is Jenny Owen Young’s third studio album, and is another step forward on the road to musical greatness for the singer/songwriter from New Jersey. It’s also the third major product of the partnership with producer Dan Romer, which started with 2005’s Batten the Hatches. Whereas Batten was as bare, stark and undecorated as the sidewalk which adorns its (2007 version) sleeve, An Unwavering Band Of Light is as rich, varied and decadent as its cover. The musical style is more diverse than ever before, and the songs are more symphonic. They’re more polished and produced (a sign of Romer’s growth, too), but still retain those trademark JOY oh-oh-oh-ohs and ah-ah-ahs that we love.

The problem with Unwavering Band of Light is that I like it already. JOY’s second album, Transmitter Failure, was a grower. Very different to Batten, it took a while to get into and to open up its riches. From the very first beats of Elliot Jacobson’s drums on the opening track of the new album, Love For Long, I’m smiling. This is worrying…will it have the longevity of its predecessors? Your Apartment was one of the early-release teaser tracks from this new album. Typical JOY, and not terribly progressive stylistically, it’s sure to be a fan favourite. The chorus is catchy, and the angsty love-interest lyrics (“I’m so far into you I can’t see out”) are staple fare.

The song which has come to be known as Pirates changes things up a notch. The driving, bouncy rhythm is immediately euphoric, and reminiscent of tunes by fellow Brooklyn transplant, Allison Weiss. It also re-introduces us to JOY’s love of universal themes of childhood fantasy: pirates, dinosaurs and sharks: “We could be pirates!” is the first line. O God is perhaps the track on the album most reminiscent of earlier work. It starts with sounds similar to Voice on Tape, an early hit, and the remainder of the song harks back to several tracks on Transmitter Failure. Born to Lose is a track co-written with Ricky Martin. I jest, but it’s not outside the realms of possibility. The hip-shaking Latin rhythms are reminiscent of Livin’ La Vida Loca and the trumpets are straight out of a No Doubt classic. The breaks are all JOY, though, and this bizarre fusion really works. It’s a huge departure from what we could have expected, but I have to say, it’s probably my favourite track on this new album.

The middle of the album falls a little flat for me, but then perhaps these are the ‘growers’ I was eager for. They don’t immediately jump out and grab me the way that the initial five tracks have done. Why You Fall is a trippy, relaxed little ditty with the message that “love is just a hole”. Sleep Machine is no lullaby; it builds steadily into a pleasing cacophonous maelstrom of sound with interesting world music influences — a touch of Arabic, and again, a touch of Latin. Two by Two and Already Gone are a little vanilla  for me, with no particularly distinguishing features. Don’t get me  wrong, both are finely crafted musical entities, but they lack an  individuality which makes them stand out.

If Born to Lose is my favourite upbeat track of the album, So Long is my favourite slower number by a mile. It’s a delicate tiptoe through a lover’s longing, played, unusually for a JOY track, on the piano (by Dan Romer). It works. It draws you in. Thankfully the final track, Wake Up, doesn’t then stamp on your vulnerable heart. It lifts you up like the morning sun streaming through the window elates you, and, oh god, the handclaps!

This album has been a while in coming. Fan-funded to the tune of $20K in a matter of hours in August 2010 through Kickstarter (and eventually reaching nearly twice its goal amount, with the help of 650 backers), it has been hard work, it seems, for JOY and Romer. The final product, though, is worth the wait. There’s a good mix of up-tempo songs and slower numbers, and clear signs of musical development. Also, there is more of a commercial sound to the album, possibly opening up avenues towards mainstream pop or TV show syndication. The rockier songs in particular are worth noting, especially with a tour of the US upcoming, and presumably a tour of the UK also to be announced for later in the year. Jenny Owen Youngs loves to rock out when she plays live, and these new songs give her plenty of opportunity to do so, and also to liven up some of the slower tracks. Stand-out tracks have to be Born to Lose and So Long, and there’s enough variety here to ensure that this album will definitely be worth listening to long into the future.

Paul Woods