The name of this band is Grooms, and the name of this album, Grooms’ second and Kanine debut, is Prom. Mull that a second. Listening to — and egad: keeping track of — a lot of music can sometimes feel like a meaningless lexical whirlwind (your Deers hoof and hunter, your Crystals Antlers and Castles, your Black Nouns amirite), but that band-album combo is still one heck of a conflation. I suppose tuxedos mark well-documented ceremonies that get their own American movies, so maybe openly acknowledging that isn’t so much buying into it as keeping wise track of life’s ‘save spheres.’ But the weird contrasts that emerge from there pretty well describe the persona of would-be slacker Travis Johnson: ever-harking back to the libidos and mythologies that clutter youth; ever-preening for that moment when things will maybe be too static to be screwed. On “Aisha,” it’s “energy/romance running through your jeans” while trying to “focus on the ring.” Johnson puts the former even more baldly on the title track — “Seventeen is the whole world” — but his very ability to put it so baldly is telling on a record that is itself that much less confused, further removed from youth, tidier.
Not that that’s saying a whole lot. 2009’s Rejoicer was the delightfully unhinged sound of a group that, despite easy Sonic Youth/Pavement pigeonholes, wanted to move in several directions at once, whether or not it tore a song to shreds. Take that classic luminescent guitar that SY loves to trickle when the smoke clears: Grooms hurled themselves into such luminescent passages, hurled themselves and the listener into and out of bliss. And always with Grooms is a fascination with sound far too boundless to come off as obsessive. After two years of listening, I still can’t decide if Rejoicer’s droning “She-Bears,” with Emily Ambruso’s voice tracing large unbroken pitch-arcs at key moments, is one of the album’s highlights or a wonky experiment-gone-wrong. Depends on the day, the sound system, the lighting. The way Grooms consistently traipsed this line between awkward and mind-bending gave them distinction and momentum; it’s what set them apart from other 90s-guitar-rock revivalists in 2009, and it’s what makes the prospect of a followup exciting. Prom could be anywhere by now.
Turns out there’s less of the sonic malarkey that might short circuit my love-hate sensibilities, and when there is, its certainty is a lot less unnerving. Although opener “Tiger Trees” fakes the listener out right off the bat with some questionable scratchy digital percussion, the song’s real sell is that sheet of near-toneless white noise into which Johnson’s clamped pipes plunge over and over again. Repetition, you may notice, not to mention a melody gluier than anything on Rejoicer. The vocal melodies on Prom are gavel-like, yet Johnson’s lankily emotive voice sounds more in its element than ever. (His vocals’ rubbed-out mixing certainly lends his pain and anxiety a beautiful twinge — I shudder to think of how the picturesque “Skating With Girl” could have been mishandled.) But unlike a few Kanine contemporaries — coughSurferBloodcough — Johnson hasn’t obviously swallowed his melodic influences whole. Even if, by his own admission, The Smiths are a crucial component of youth, the tiniest nip in that direction is always still teething. The clean strums in “3D Voices” represent pop deployed to snuff the noisy climax of “Don’t Worry, You’re Prettier.” Acoustic ditty “Psychics” and Ambruso’s early-MBV wink “Sharing” feel almost more like tongue-in-cheek references to accessibility than natural excursions.
The honing of the vocals and the absentminded smoothing down of the vocals’ jagged surroundings make Prom feel more like Johnson’s show than a full-band effort. The album presents itself as this sort of trade-off — I do miss drummer Jim Sykes’ tubular rattlework, which improved every song it breached on Rejoicer — and if I’m honest, it’s probably exactly the sort of charisma-boost that Grooms needed. I find myself listening to their lyrics more, hitting dead ends, tracing themes about sexuality and getting followed around by enigmas like “Richard thinks he ripped a hole in me.” Ostensibly, this was all there inside the knot of the group’s past work. The upshot is that a couple tracks on the weaker end (“Imagining the Bodies,” “Into the Arms”) feel a little attention-starved, all expert dangle and no hurl, and it’s there that I could see the trio really cracking their heads together and once again becoming some starved force of nature. But Prom being as infatuating a unit as it is, I’m not holding my breath. They’ve got that sound — you’ll know immediately that you’ll like it, and this time around, Grooms don’t screw around with your certainty.