The line between gossip and psychotherapy is sometimes mighty thin.
There Goes the Neighborhood, the debut album by Jenny Tolman, casts the clever newcomer – hailed by Sound Opinions as a “storyteller par excellence” – as a member of a high-class, white trash welcoming committee, an observant woman who sees other people on her own fictitious block through a humorous, surface-scraping veneer.
Tolman conveys her songs with “the sass of Nikki Lane mixed with the clever wordplay of Brandy Clark,” according to Rolling Stone, making a scintillating statement about the complexities of modern femininity by exploring her own womanhood through a make-believe town.
Music provides the ideal vehicle for Tolman to examine a sometimes-painful world with a blast of sardonic humor as she continues to distance herself from very difficult teen years and fully embrace her bold, brazen adult viewpoint.
“We live in a society where you’re told not to feel things,” she says. “But that’s literally what you survive off of: your feelings and your instincts.”
That Tolman would turn to music to find her way makes complete sense. She grew up in Nashville, the daughter of a talent buyer who started in music as a member of a barbershop quartet, the Indian River Boys. Interacting as a concert professional with the likes of Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and The Oak Ridge Boys, the Tolmans established a safe home environment while treating stardom as if it were run of the mill.
But safety turned to danger as she reached dating age. She endured a rocky, threatening relationship as a teen – the kind that leads to courtroom drama and restraining orders. She became extremely withdrawn but found with her first efforts at writing that music helped her process the confusion and agony.
“Those songs were very sad and very self-therapeutic,” she recalls. “But that was a crazy time in my life. I had anxiety problems and felt so lonely and so isolated from everything that seemed ‘normal’ and that I believed I ‘should be doing.’ That was a chapter of being young and not understanding what was going on around me.”
She developed quickly, and the songs progressed. The darkness in the songs evolved into hope, and that positivity helped her take pride in her hard-won individuality, much like the women she already admired in music, including Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton and Alicia Keys.
“I would always try to fit in with everybody, but I didn’t,” Tolman remembers. “Now it’s so clear – I don’t want to be like anybody else. I just want to be like me, because if I’m like everybody else, then I’m nobody.”
She started playing open-mic nights and guitar pulls in Nashville, timidly at first, but music professionals invariably recognized her singular creative talent. That included songwriters such as Mark D. Sanders (“I Hope You Dance”), Rory Bourke (“You Look So Good In Love”) and Marty Dodson (“Must Be Doin’ Something Right”), plus producer Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark, Jerrod Niemann), who was enamored with the sultry-but-vulnerable quality in her voice.
Tolman and Brainard began writing regularly, and he helped her connect with the wry influences in her arsenal, including Roger Miller, Bobby Bare and Shel Silverstein. As their writing relationship continued, the dramatic, weighty attitudes of some of her earlier songs soon evolved into witty, slice-of-life writing, often using gossipy observation to demonstrate how relationships with others can provide insight about one’s relationship with themselves.
A chunk of those songs coalesced into There Goes the Neighborhood, taking a sort of Desperate Housewives approach while portraying a series of women who are at once lovable and neurotic. Building the album as a cast of characters allowed Tolman to inject pieces of her own personality into each storyline without making it entirely autobiographical. She casts the other women’s eccentricities with a stark humor, then takes a deep dive into the dark corners of her own self-doubt.
The album vacillates from the “coupon-clipper with a push-up bra” who flirts with the butcher in “Work It” to the woman battling cruel inner voices in “Love You Too.” Particularly revealing is “So Pretty,” a song that explores a bout with jealousy. It comes from Tolman’s own heart, though the real story is reshaped to depict a woman who discovers that her hatred for a perceived rival is unfounded.
“I had entered into a relationship where my boyfriend was still good friends with his ex, and I was very threatened by that at first,” Tolman recalls. “I wished she wasn’t so pretty and so sweet. I wanted her to be a monster, but she wasn’t. So ‘So Pretty’ was inspired by that, but ended up being written from a little bit different point of view.”
That’s serious stuff, but it’s balanced throughout There Goes the Neighborhood. It includes several interstitial skits that literally advertise her artful humor, plus edgy statements (“Ain’t Mary Jane”), picturesque amusements (“High Class White Trash,” “Work It”) and songs of unbridled commitment (“Till My Tank Is Empty,” “Used To My Cooking”).
“There’s a huge thread of self-perception and body image and being pretty and being feminine, and a whole take on all of society’s pressures,” she says of the songs. “That, to me in my life, is the most prevalent issue right now: women empowerment and women disempowerment at the same time.”
In the end, There Goes the Neighborhood is a sort of Gladys Kravitz take on relationships, a snoopy, busy-body approach to figuring out how other people work. But in the process of looking at those other characters, Tolman’s own relationship with herself begins to make sense. Her darker, brooding period has given way to a lighter, funny Jenny Tolman who embraces a glass-half-full approach to life.
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