Since the release of the trio’s 2009 debut, Rejoicer, Grooms has been labeled, and perhaps too easily discarded, as one of the first wave of a ’90s indie-rock revival. While that album may have been categorized subsequent to its first jangly guitar freak-out, what the band seems to be attempting with Prom is a far more ambitious statement of style. Instead of adapting their sound around criticism, Grooms have dived deeper into the sonic world that they’ve created for themselves, drawing equally from their contemporaries and their love for pop rock. While this may not exactly be exciting new ground for a Brooklyn-based indie band, something about Prom carries an understated excitement that gives the album a haunting quality.
Musically, Prom plays far less awkwardly than Rejoicer, as its dramatic moments seem to occur with little effort. From the first note of the album, a spritely slide-guitar lick that fades away as quickly as it comes, Grooms frames Prom in a window of recollection and quiet contemplation and its songs seem to flow with easy nuance between loud and soft, frustrated and sentimental. The album carefully lays itself out in segments that flow like the responses to a painful memory, juxtaposing feelings of nostalgia and anxiety. Gentle lyricisms are often coupled with dark chord progressions that give songs like “Into the Arms” a strangely unsettling energy, and throughout Prom the band jumps between thoughts effortlessly, showing a mastery over its pace and feel.
In approaching this album, Grooms has adapted an entire arsenal of compositional tools used by the bands around them and summoning lessons from the lo-fi movement. Prom derives much of its feel from a foundation of droning organ notes and an ever-present dreamlike reverb, while its dynamics are found when gentle melodies meet walls of fuzzed out guitars and glitchy drum loops. This creates an involving sonic environment. Though some may decry it as derivative of the band’s Brooklyn locale, in an era when one’s exposure to ideas is seems to be only limited by bandwidth, why is it such a bad thing to take influence from your contemporaries if they’re doing interesting things?
Even so, Prom is still soaked in ’90s idioms, evident from the first lyrics of the title track: “Seventeen/ Is the whole new world/ In my room/ The Smiths and girls” is laid over an impossibly heavy bass line that disintegrates into choruses consisting entirely of intense guitar noise. This works in the favor of Prom, despite its clear references to Sonic Youth and groups like TV on the Radio. Grooms takes ownership over these influences, going so far as to play their touchstones off of the band member’s relative youth, driving home the album’s sense of innocence.
Throughout the album, a tinge of melancholy is stressed in singer Travis Johnson’s voice. He carries an almost lazy eloquence, whining at times yet still empathetic, as if he idealizes thoughts about what might have been, not what was. At first his sentiments seem contemplative and rejuvenating; on “Tiger Trees,” Johnson sings, “You’re a tiger tree branch and I’m the leaves,” and by “Skating with Girl” they become longing and full of anxious energy, “Your stolen body asleep/ My frozen boundaries can’t keep.” Johnson’s voice suits this mood well, and is often accented by slightly girlish harmonies from bassist Emily Ambruso that add an element of sweetness to his otherwise dour presence. Still, this tone can become tiresome after too long, and when Ambruso’s voice comes to the front on “Sharing” near the end of the album, the moment is refreshing, like a release of tension, only far too brief.
Mirroring how some things seem less significant with time, Prom feels like a coping mechanism for feelings of alienation and ridicule. And when the album ends, it does so with a glorious cacophony of sound that shudders suddenly into silence, as if the thoughts the band were exploring were suddenly interrupted by a flick of a light switch. In Prom, Grooms have honed their sound while unabashedly adapting their influences, creating something new and interesting with the palette that they’ve chosen.
by Jordan Ardanaz