There was a time when Jenny Toomey was well known for something other than her leading role in the representation of musicians in the new music-distribution debate. Yes, there was a time when Jenny Toomey -- on her own, or fronting bands such as '90s indie-rock staple Tsunami -- got to actually sing, and play. Similarly, there was a time when Franklin Bruno was better known for writing music -- solo, or with Nothing Painted Blue -- than for writing about music for, well, just about every decent paper and mag in the country. (On the side, he teaches philosophy at UCLA -- you know, for kicks.) On Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings the Songs of Franklin Bruno, this overachieving pair gets to prove that yes, in fact, they do do everything better than everybody else.
Prepping for these quiet, jazzy arrangements, Toomey has obviously spent some time studying torch-song specialists, and has come to the conclusion that too many of today's pretenders miss completely (heads up, Costello and Krall). Toomey's torch-lit lounge singing has all the sighs of sadness and soft delicacy, but while Bruno's lyrics are often pained and victimized ("Is it only empty sentiment / that moves you to tears?"), they are never acquiescent -- and neither is Toomey. Rather, Toomey remains a strong presence throughout; no sad, timid maiden here, but a willful vocalist trodding with impunity into the songs and coming out alive. Take "Just Because It's Dying," on which, backed with jazz guitar, brushed snare and upright bass, Toomey vocally embodies the strong-headedness of Bruno's decision to go on "while there's a single shaky step / left in their frame."
It doesn't hurt that each of Franklin Bruno's songs is a minor masterpiece: His ability to use labor-union imagery in a love song ("Unionbusting") and do it -- get this -- without sounding stupid is, alone, symbolic of his genius. (Invoking Billy Bragg was a good start, but even William Bloke can only rarely pull off a stunt like this.) Had Bruno been alive and writing 50 years ago, collections like this -- of Sinatra or Bennett doing his songs -- might've been commonplace. For Jenny Toomey, whose Simple Machines label put out Bruno's records a decade ago, the absence of such a record is sorrowful -- and the correction of that situation a near-perfect labor of love.