PRINT Summer 1995


Jenny Toomey

“LICORICE IS CANDY, but it’s not too sweet candy,“ says Dan Littleton, a guitar player in Liquorice. That aptly describes the music that comes out of Littleton and Jenny Toomey, his partner, music that sounds like Joni Mitchell filtered through a ’90s sensibility: acoustic guitar and sweet, meandering vocals underscored by an in-charge, unflustered attitude that only rarely cracks to show an iota of vulnerability. On “2nd Most Beautiful Girl” Toomey shows her take-no-shit side: “The second most beautiful girl in the world says she’s worried about me/the choices that I’m making, they just aren’t healthy/but that’s just an easy way for she to dis me publicly.” “Drive Around” is the come-on of a smart tough woman: “You tore that interviewer in two/he deserved it/and they couldn’t find a typeface bold enough to take you/that’s the type of face I take to/I’d like to take you out for a drive.” Only on “Keep the Weekend Free,” which is about waiting for someone to call, does Toomey show a persona who could possibly long for anything that might be out of her reach—and that song’s a cover of a song by someone else.

Liquorice’s debut album, Listening Cap, is soon to be released on 4AD. The band is project number three for the prolific and some somewhat formidable Toomey, an unschooled musician whose formerly quavery-yet-pretty voice has gotten stronger and more often on key, perhaps through sheer force of will. Her main gig is singing and playing guitar with Tsunami, a Washington, D.C.–area punk band that formed in the early ’90s and just put out a third album. Another side project is a quasi–lounge band called Grenadine, also featuring Mark Robinson, formerly of Unrest; Grenadine’s Goya (Shimmy Disc, 1992) is a concept album, a parody of the easy-listening records released at the dawn of the age of stereo. The cover mimics those flea-market treasures with a swanky photo, vintage typefaces, and credits attributing songwriting to Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra, and Hoagy Carmichael, all bald-faced lies. The music is a reasonable approximation of the genre.

Grenadine’s motivation is partly youthful practical-joking. “We wanted to see if people would get it,” says Toomey. “We said Burt Bacharach wrote the songs but we’re singing about fucking and Kramer” (the Kramer who runs Shimmy Disc). But the music is also a sincere reaction to the harder music Toomey and Robinson play with Tsunami and Unrest. Toomey is derisive about the recent lounge-music trend, which Grenadine preceded. “We tried not to align ourselves with Lounge Nation,” she says. “Love Jones—it’s like they’re making fun of the music and themselves. It’s like a Weird Al Yankovic thing. We have a respect for the music.” Grenadine released a second record, Nopalitos, last year, but what with Toomey’s schedule and Robinson’s responsibilities to TeenBeat, his own label, the band hasn’t had time to tour.

With Kristin Thomson, Tsunami’s other guitarist, Toomey too runs a record label called Simple Machines. They put out beautifully packaged singles in creatively marketed series like “Working Holiday,” which featured a year of singles by different bands pegged to holidays. The label pays Toomey’s and Thomson’s rent at the moment; both in their mid 20s, they feed themselves with temp jobs at Kinko’s and such places. Liquorice—they use the alternative spelling because there’s already a band called Licorice—was born when Ivo Watts-Russell, the force behind 4AD, asked Toomey to do a solo record. She recruited Littleton because she’d been wanting to work with him again for years; they last played together in 1989, in a band called Slack, which did stripped-down acoustic covers of Neil Young, Elvis Costello, and Joan Armatrading. “Our other bands didn’t allow for that kind of music,” says Littleton. The songs on Listening Cap, which are in the same vein as the songs covered by Slack, were written by Toomey in the summer of 1994, when she was composing for Tsunami. “For some reason they didn’t work for Tsunami,” she says. “Dan and I recorded four tracks and sent them to Ivo. He said to do a demo. The demo became the record. I don’t like doing demos, because it’s more exciting when you don’t know where the vocal track is going.”

4AD has built an impressive roster through this tactic of asking alternative guitar divas for side projects: the Breeders started out this way for Kim Deal and Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses, and ended up as the outlet for Deal’s best work. When Donnelly left both Throwing Muses and the Breeders to start Belly, she too blossomed as an artist. Toomey insists that Tsunami remains her priority, and Littleton also has a full-time band called Ida, based in New York, but Listening Cap sounds too good to be a one-off. Listening to it, I remember being a 14-year-old escaping into Blue through big plastic stereo headphones, reading the lyrics off the sheet as the sun streams in my bedroom window—supremely uncool music that, when it’s played by punk rockers weary of noise, becomes cool again.

Christina Kelly is a freelance writer who lives in New York.