Shuffle: Toomey, to you: an appreciation of Jenny Toomey

Jenny Toomey was prominent on the Washington DC Hardcore scene in the early 1990s, she played in several bands including Choke, Geek and most notably in Tsunami. It’s not this part of her career that I’m going to concentrate on though it is certainly worth noting. We’ll get to where we’re going soon enough, and that destination is a pair of solo albums that she recorded towards the end of her musical career. Before we get there, there’s the fact that she managed the label Simple Machines, which alongside Teen Beat and Dischord documented much of the DC Hardcore scene; and that after music she’s spent her time in various advocacy projects such as Future of Music Foundation and her current role working towards a free and fair internet as Director of Internet Freedom at the Ford Foundation.

As I noted I want to concentrate on her solo work but as is the want of this column I’m going to take a diversion through some of her early work. There’s not a great deal of video available, not every show in the early ’90s was recorded – those were the days when we went to gigs to enjoy the music and bands didn’t make videos unless you got some record company money. So we’ll go with what we’ve got. Toomey worked with Dan Littleton (who went on to Ida – who released their first music on Simple Machines) in a more roots-orientated band, Slack. Below is ‘Bates Stamp‘.

Toomey was incredibly prolific in the early ’90s involved in multiple projects at once and releasing very different records – Grenadine (with Mark Robinson of Unrest and Rob Christiansen of Eggs) was a more lounge based experimental sound, a change from the more rock guitar-based bands that she was associated with. ‘Fillings‘ gives some idea of her voice which is an instrument of great purity, with subtlety and suppleness that aren’t qualities that were prized in the Hardcore scene.

Toomey continued to further develop her vocal style when she again collaborated with Littleton and Warren Defever (of His Name is Alive) in Liquorice: legend has it that they recorded more than thirty songs in a week and that Defever created more than 70 versions. The sessions and the record that resulted from it, ‘Listening Cap’ contained a version of The Roche’s ‘Jill of All Trades‘, a torch ballad with Toomey’s vocal front and centre. You really start to get an idea of what she was capable of from this song.

Now we’ve covered off the pre-solo work, we can now wallow in the two solo records, ‘Antidote‘ from 2001 and ‘Tempting‘ from 2002. This is where she shed her skin and re-emerged stronger more confident and with a voice that stopped my heart the first time I heard it. ‘Antidote‘ had two distinct sides, Nashville and Chicago, and here’s where Americana freaks should get excited. Mark Nevers from Lambchop helps out, and the songs drip with regret, the music is full of grace, the lyrics hard-won and reflective, and together something really special is happening. Try ‘The Smell of Him‘ – everything flows so beautifully with tinges of pedal steel and piano fills like weeping willow branches caught in the current of a lazy river.

If you’ve stayed with me so far, I think you’ve been rewarded, but stick around for there’s more to come. The Chicago songs also benefit from a strong guest list, Andrew Bird, Edith Frost included – the songs aren’t as syrupy smooth, but are equal in terms of enjoyment. It is a little more strong-willed, a mended heart that is more resilient from the experience. Try ‘Patsy Cline‘.

Toomey followed this with ‘Tempting‘ a record of cover versions of Franklin Bruno songs. For the uninitiated, Bruno is one of the most under-appreciated contemporary songwriters; he’s worked with John Darnielle (of The Mountain Goats) as The Extra Glenns/Lens, he’s been in Nothing Painted Blue and The Human Hearts. I see him as a kind of American Elvis Costello, only I like him more. Toomey’s voice on this record is stronger than ever, more expressive than ever, it is truly powerful. Again there are guests aplenty and on ‘Your Inarticulate Boyfriend‘ you might catch yourself thinking “that sounds a bit like Calexico” and you’d be right – Joey Burns and John Convertino are onboard.

I’m thinking that anyone who enjoyed ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘ would find this as far up their alley as you could get. Every track offers up something and I want to include them all here (luckily the records are available on Bandcamp at a very reasonable price so you can discover them for yourself) but I can’t – still, let’s have at least one more and I’ve gone for ‘Every Little Bit Hurts‘ as it is close to crowd-pleasing as it gets.

Her output in the last twenty years has been very sporadic; there are a few singles with Franklin Bruno and the odd appearance on compilations – here she is with long-time collaborator Amy Domingues covering American Music Club’s ‘Last Harbour‘. It is music’s loss and society’s gain that Toomey has devoted her energies into making the world a better place for everyone and not just for people like me who remain in awe of her talent and in love with her voice. A woman with a truly inspirational story is surely worth some of your time.

About David Cowling 142 Articles
Punk rock, Go-Betweens, REM, Replacments, Husker Du, Minutemen, Will Oldham, Smog, Whiskeytown, Ass Ponys but probably most of all Howe Gelb, led me on this journey.
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