If words were defined by a sound, Jenny Westbury’s voice would epitomize “bittersweet.” The former Houston folkstress, now a Seattleite, uses perfect pitch to drive a nasally soprano and complement songs that are as silly as they are sad and sincere. Her first full-length release, Jenny French and the Pelican Wrench, features numerous examples of her vocal prowess.
Westbury has mastered the art of range and control – knowing when to quiet down, when to fade out and when to turn it up. (A lesson in singing: Just because you can belt out soulful sounds at full gusto does not make you talented. It means you can sing loudly.) This is the reason Westbury’s entire album holds the listener’s attention – when the guitar gets repetitive she changes her vocals, making for some of the best sing-a-along (or at least follow-along) moments. Not to say the album doesn’t have its weaker moments, but even at her worst, Westbury is still impressive.
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“Song About My Mom” exemplifies her style, a yearning, almost crying voice addresses serious subject matter with clever, painstakingly quirky lyrics. “She lost all her copyrights / But still makes ideas so bright” leads into “She said the horny toads / They need clothes to go out walking / so she put them on a leash.” Other tunes like “The School of Art,” a tribute to the tribulations of academia, and “Break-Up Song,” an ode to the obvious, employ a similar approach.
Elsewhere, Westbury is a vocal experimentalist toying with layered recordings and creating choralesque cathedral rock. “I Heard You’re Having a Baby” is a congratulatory nod to new parents, delivered with echoing vocals backed by “bum, bum bums” and “la la las” that seem to rise from your ears and toward the nearest stained-glass window.
Westbury also throws in a few surprises, like the dancey “Stephen for His Fear of Kites” where an instructional video is sampled and mixed with simple keyboards and drums to back layers of Westbury singing different lyrics at different pitches. She might be hinting at a new direction for her next release, but sticking with her current formula would be no disappointment. – Dusti Rhodes