"Are we all something to envy, are we all something else?/ Are we all something to envy or are we more like a threat?"
Though lacking the distinctive styles and sounds of other pioneering DC indie labels like Dischord (tighty wound, chest-thumping post-punk) and Teenbeat (hand-crafted, Factory-inspired Europop), Simple Machines was a formidable outfit. Founded in 1990 by Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thomson, it managed to release its fair share of great indie rock and pop artifacts -- LPs and EPs by the likes of Autoclave, Ida, the Monorchid, Retsin, Scrawl, and others -- before shutting its doors for good in '98. Plus, Simple Machines was founded and run by two women, making the label -- which never let itself be pigeonholed as an imprint for "chick bands" -- unique in the guy-centric indie landscape of the '80s and '90s.
Lucky for us, Toomey and Thomson weren't content to simply found an outlet for great music; they were also compelled to make some pretty great sounds of their own via their band Tsunami. Featuring both Toomey and Thomson on guitars and vocals, Andrew Webster on bass, and John Parmer on drums, Tsunami released a handful of singles and four LPs between 1993 and 1997, representing some of the hookiest and endearingly enthusiastic material to come out of the DC scene of the Clinton era.
Tsunami specialized in a heavily melodic sound steeped in punchy rhythms and dueling guitars, featuring the soaring interplay of Toomey's and Thomson's vocal harmonies. Like Superchunk, another group of buzzing early '90s indie upstarts trading on good ideas, overflowing energy, and an ear for tart 'n' tangy melodies, Tsunami had a knack for marrying dissonance and tunefullnes. The twin guitar attack of Toomey and Thomson was built around walls of fuzzily distorted power chords and frantic strumming, the drums and bass hurriedly trying to ground the sound and keep things on the straight and narrow.
Tsunami's debut LP Deep End is Exhibit A as to why they were so great, 13 tracks worth of irresistibly catchy, winningly abrasive racket. The guitars stay thorny and twisted, the drums push forward with little pause, and the bass pins the melody to the floor even as the rest of the band threatens to get ahead of themselves. Furthermore, the singing is unerringly affecting, as Toomey and Thomson belt out the songs with a mixture of bravado, sexy insinuation, and accusatory bluster, anger and joy tumbling after themselves in each high-ceilinged verse and high-volume chorus.
Deep End's opening salvo "In A Name" bursts forward on overcaffeinated riffs and wailing vocals, the sound of clever kids highly stoked and easily distracted. When "Slugger" isn't pounding it's floating, buoyed by layered vocals and bouncy stringwork. The mid-tempo stalk of "Water's Edge" adds danger and darkness to the mix, menacing syncopation scrapping with snarling guitars as Toomey and Thomson wail, "She waits/ By the water's edge/ She searches/ For a sign of life," one of the album's spookiest tunes. The anti-anthem of "Genius of Crack" plays like narcotized Pixies-sized surf rock, a tribute to and mockery of Gen X stereotypes. "We're so slack, we come off like geniuses on crack/ And I'm sad to give up on the one thing I never had." Album closer "Stupid Like a Fox" could be a mission statement, thrashing and gliding by turns, hemmed in by vexed vocals and rushing rhythms.
To my mind, Tsunami have never gotten the respect they deserve. I remember discovering them in high school and being immediately smitten with their approach: ballsy chicks fronting a serrated sound, riot-grrrls who would never call themselves that, rocking un-self-consciously and awesomely. Tsunami remain largely unsung heroes, often overlooked in remembrances of the time but nevertheless boasting a catalog that more than stands up to scrutiny.