Tsunami - The Heart’s Tremolo
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
A lovely silver cover with a floral pattern strip betwixt a classy font: If album artwork is meant to convey an album’s aesthetic, then this is achieved beautifully with Tsunami’s The Heart’s Tremolo. A single note of feedback is switched on and soon after, the band crashes in, but not with the tempestuous force suggested by their name—rather the band crashes in with distorted guitars that sound more righteous that disastrous; however, the wave is not without power; it hits with a depth that sends the listener several feet under. “Loud is as loud does.” Indeed. Depth, not noise, is what resonates. While beneath these sonic breakers one may ponder what a full moon appears like under water or if the color silver is audible to sensitive ears? Are such questions too abstract? Too reckless in their pursuit of poetry? My apologies, but sometimes it takes poetry to describe poetry.
There’s no denying that the first half of the 1990s was an important era for independent rock. Bands like Pavement and Superchunck were the names on many a hipster’s tongue, though for me—a teenager who had a knack for stumbling upon good music—the voice that best defined my courtship with indi-rock was Jenny Toomey’s. I was actually introduced to her through Grenadine’s first album, Goya—her dreamy version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” was the perfect torch for fledgling romantics. I had heard of Tsunami—it was a name that stuck out (the band must have been ecstatic when they realized it hadn’t been used before)—but it wasn’t until my Goya exposure that I kept an ear out for them; it was upon listening to college radio one faithful day that I heard Tsunami’s “Valentine” and before the DJ made the confirmation, I knew it was the same Jenny Toomey from Grenadine singing, even though she had a distorted guitar backdrop versus a clean guitar backdrop. The Toomey factor was most apparent in her distinct, determined vocal, but also in her moody chord progressions. Subsequently, my record player was spinning their first LP Deep End and...well, it was all right. The album had its share of spunk (I liked the song “Slugger” a lot), but it was closer to Superchunk than it was to the after-hour cocktail rock I was expecting to hear. For the most part, it lacked the atmosphere of the Grenadine recording, even if there was a bit more kick to its beat. It wasn’t until Tsunami’s next album, The Heart’s Tremolo, that everything came together for me: the atmosphere and the kick.
Tsunami struck a peak of pure perfection in 1994 and it is captured in this indi-rock masterpiece. For me, The Heart’s Tremolo is sculpted from stronger stone than its contemporaries—underground or otherwise. Jenny Toomey's plucky voice sails over an argent sea of gorgeous sound, which you sometimes forget is formed by only two guitars, bass and drums. It was a giant leap in composition for the band as well as in musicianship; raw yet accomplished; words and instrumentation striking intelligently with precision, though never at the expense of emotion. Whereas many indi-rock acts are too grounded in irony and nonchalance, Tsunami balanced sentiment and cool with a natural dexterity unnatural to most contemporary rock acts—most notably with The Heart’s Tremolo. Throughout the album, Toomey is an ever-bewitching presence with her rich, black forest cake vocals and her sharp, confrontational lyrics. This was—and is—the after-hour rock for “the losers” I wanted to hear from Toomey. Not “loser” in the Beck sense, but in the Sinatra sense: “the loser” strolling down an alley during the wee hours with a song in his head and an ache in his heart. Rock music doesn’t have to be either egghead progressive or lunkhead regressive; such oft extremes are a limiting drag to say the least. The Heart’s Tremolo is a sophisticated rock record, but it’s not too sophisticated. The band’s sound builds and ebbs throughout the album, suggesting a jazz sensibility without a jazz pretension. Periodic atonality from the chords echo an early Sonic-Youth influence, but Andrew Webster’s melodic bass-lines and the beatific harmonies between Toomey and Kristin Thomson are listener friendly (especially on the catchy “Be Like That”)—this may be what singer-songwriters sound like in a post-apocalyptic environment. Drummer John Pamer is tighter than any Pavement percussionist, yet manages to evoke a similar rhythmic tension; best exemplified by the track “Quietnova” with its creeping, tossing and turning groove.
There are no cheap rock tricks; guitars don’t go from clean to distorted (or vica-versa) when expected; this is not dynamics by number; instrumentation is treated as an extension to the psychological disposition of the adjoining lyrics, which are never black or white themselves. Some songs deal directly with the woes of independent rocking (“Kidding on the Square”; “Cowed by the Bla Bla”), others focus on romantic preoccupation (title-track; “Fits and Starts”), but there’s an overall cohesion in the world Toomey pens; professional aggravations overlap with personal frustrations. Life is work. Life is friends. Life is lovers. Life is enemies—spawning from the previous three groups. An unabashed lover of inside scenarios, Toomey doesn’t give names or places; she writes in detail not presentation. The lack of divulgence actually lends to a deeper intimacy. Toomey isn’t reading off an egotistical report to some massive audience; she’s allowing her consciousness (and subconsciousness) to unravel to anyone who takes the time to chew on her words. And words are an important tool for Toomey—as important as they are to a novelist or poet. Any significant object snagged by her eye (“warped vinyl, half ripped maps”) or simile conceived (“he’s bigger than an old time skating rink”) is used for articulation. The most lyrical satisfaction, however, comes from her extended wordplay in which observation, metaphor and impressive prose blend seamlessly into one another; the first verse from the title-cut is a good example: “He’d rather tap out that novel across the room, Morse code in tension chipped stoneware mug of a signal flat chrome toneless humorless spoon”. In addition to this sublime lyricism, we have the previously praised sound of the band rolling gently beneath Toomey’s tender crooning; rising slowly here and there—accentuating every insight and impression; when the band rocks out near the end of the title-cut, it’s for the shortest and subtlest of moments yet it best expresses a jolt to the heart. In the end, it’s the execution of the song, not the composition, which has the greatest impact. Perhaps the closing declaration on the album’s opener, “Loud is as Loud Does”, says something on this matter: “Loud is in the static, it’s buried in the attic, it registers under what’s said.”
With today’s heartless corporate rock prospering like a cancer to the soul, The Heart’s Tremolo is an exceptionally important statement. Not only because it sadly foreshadows the decline of the indi-scene in its emotionally strained lyrics, but because it also addresses universal matters of the heart in a dignified and artful manner.
By: Edwin Faust
Published on: 2003-09-01