That Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thomson have built a modest indie empire with their Simple Machines label is admirable enough; that a pair of young women could rise to the top of the straight-edge, terminally macho DC-area indie heap is nothing short of amazing. Amid the usual apprenticeships in assorted punk and folk bands (Toomey was in Geek), the roommates started the label and then formed Tsunami with bassist Andrew Webster and drummer John Palmer.
In 1991, Simple Machines released the cassette-demo Cow Arcade and the five-song Headringer 7-inch. The latter (reissued in ’95 on the band’s World Tour compilation) was quite a calling card, with its brash mixture of Pylonesque pop dissonance (“Flameproof Suit,” “Candyman”) and moody, pre-riot grrrl punk (“Kickball Babe”). The next two years kept Tsunami in a flurry of touring and recording, with four Simple Machines 45s (often in elaborate packaging) and assorted singles and compilation tracks for other labels.
Tsunami made its longplaying debut in mid-’93. Deep End not only reaffirms the band’s indie-to-the-marrow ethics (assorted answering machine messages from scenesters appear), but also reveals a combo unwilling to fashion crude, scratchy documents merely for the sake of street cred. Toomey and Thomson’s vocal harmonies approach choir-like complexity on “Lucky” and “Valentine”; furthermore, the group’s thick, layered arrangements — an intoxicating blur of strummed/dirty guitars, sonorous basslines and catchy melodic hooks — mark Tsunami as pop experimentalists, not ossifying punk rockers.
Preceded by another slew of singles and compilation appearances, Tsunami released The Heart’s Tremolo in 1994. The harmonies and noisy guitars remain signatures, but Toomey’s supple voice frequently takes center stage, a confident instrument skating over impressionistic lyrics designed to convey the vicissitudes of affection, devotion, disappointment and outright fury. The band explores artful pop terrain that is alternately lushly balladic and quirky in an almost avant-folk manner. “Quietnova” has a droning, mantra-like quality; “Fast Food Medicine” uses odd time signature shifts and unusual guitar effects.
The 22-track World Tour and Other Destinations collects all of Tsunami’s miscellaneous 7-inch cuts, non-album B-sides and compilation contributions to date. Highlights include the chiming, near-anthemic “Sometimes a Notion,” a powerful version of the Minutemen’s “Courage” (originally on the M-men tribute album Our Band Could Be Your Life) and the self-explanatory “Bossa Nova.” By no means an anthology of afterthoughts, the CD also boasts fold-out artwork depicting a colorful US map with names of band pals at “rest areas” over the years.
Toomey has been compared to both Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh and Belly’s Tanya Donelly, but that does the workaholic a disservice. In addition to her Tsunami and Simple Machines duties, Toomey is one-third of loungecore combo Grenadine and co-collaborator with Nothing Painted Blue’s Franklin Bruno on a political punk musical called Indie Rock Summer Stock. Around 1990, she got together with her pal Dan Littleton (late of Annapolis’ Hated, later to form Brooklyn’s Ida) as the offbeat folk duo Slack. A mail-order-only cassette, the five-song Bates Stamper, was issued in ’92, but it wasn’t until ’94 that the pair would find times in their respective schedules for “serious” recording. With Slack rechristened Liquorice, Toomey and Littleton went into the Michigan studio of Warren Defever (His Name Is Alive) and, assisted by HNIA drummer Trey Many, recorded 30 songs in a week. While legend has it that producer Defever’s remixing frenzy resulted in some 77 “versions” of those 30 songs, Listening Cap consists of eight delightful, low-key originals plus covers of the Roches’ “Jill of All Trades” (stately piano torch balladry at its most sentimental) and Bruno’s “Keeping the Weekend Free,” a sweet, affecting vocal duet between Toomey and Littleton. Throughout the record, Toomey is a reluctant star at the microphone. She slips from purr to trill, from muted frustration to smoky desire; when she dispassionately sings the lines “Honey, yeah, I got a trouble with you and it/Isn’t what you are/It’s what you do,” it’s easy to believe, as the singer is undoubtedly trying to convince herself, that the affair’s breakup is someone else’s fault. Accompanied by Littleton’s warm, effects-free guitar tone and Many’s sympathetic percussion murmurs (the snare is frequently brushed), Toomey is cast as a charismatic java hut chanteuse for lonely singles and troubled lovers alike.