The Prom Promises Entertaining Emotion

Seattle indie pop newcompers hit Cambridge with skilled piano playing and heartfelt introspection

As far as band names go, “The Prom” is a pretty odd choice. In terms of music, the prom recalls cheesy disco compilations and the tasteless dance remixes. Memories of calamities like “The Electric Slide,” “YMCA” and Britney’s first big hit, once repressed, emerge from dark, hidden recesses.

But this “Prom” makes indie pop that fluctuates between rhythmically intense and sentimental—not so prom-like at all. The band’s piano-driven songs recall Ben Folds Five, but the Prom improves on the formula—they are intricate, rowdy and pleasing rather than simplistic and annoying.

Taking a break from their tour supporting Carissa’s Wierd, the Prom opened for Rilo Kiley earlier this month at T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge.

The exhilarating psychotic rush of the wordless song “The Killer Robots” was the clear highlight. The piece demonstrates flashy, rumbling garage rock tendencies that resemble the bustling rhythmic guitar drive of Detroit blues-rock band the Von Bondies.

As with most bands the media labels “emo,” the Prom’s slower numbers are pretty but overly sentimental. Fortunately, they never reach the maudlin levels of more well-known bands such as Dashboard Confessional.

And the band’s peppier songs are undeniably entertaining and technically superb. They are talented instrumentalists and their arrangements are tight, well-balanced and without a trace of pretense.

James Mendenhall, the Prom’s lead vocalist and pianist, is perhaps most impressive. Despite beginning piano less than three years ago, he is deft and confident at the keyboard.

Originally from Omaha, Mendenhall and David Broecker (bass) played together for eight years in various guitar bands before moving into piano song writing in Seattle. Although the city is most famous for its early 90s grunge scene, Seattle is now home to a healthy indie pop scene that includes Pedro the Lion and Death Cab For Cutie. The Prom joined the burgeoning scene about three years ago, when Mendenhall and Broecker teamed up with drummer Joel Brown.

“I saw a piano one day and I thought ‘I should really learn,’” Mendenhall says. “I basically started the band to learn how to play piano. I like to jump into new things. If it works, good. If it doesn’t, I don’t care. At least I tried.”

After breaking onto the indie scene in 2001 with their first album, In This Way They Found Me on Panther Fact, the Prom signed with Seattle-based Barsuk Records. They embarked on a national tour with acclaimed label mates Death Cab For Cutie and released their second album, Under the Same Stars, the following year.

Kevin Barrans (drums) has since replaced Brown, and guitarist Justin Wilmore was the band’s latest addition. Despite the addition of guitar to the band’s repertoire, the Prom’s music is still keyboard driven—a rarity in contemporary rock.

“There’s nothing really exciting me about music right now. [But] the new Bright Eyes record is phenomenal,” Mendenhall says.

Bright Eyes, along with Cursive, the Faint and other Saddle Creek Records bands represent the thriving indie pop scene in Omaha, which still has ties to Mendenhall and the Prom. In fact, all three of the other bands that played the Cambridge show—Mayday, The Good Life and headliners Rilo Kiley—are on Saddle Creek.

“The whole Omaha scene is always a big influence [on our music] because Dave and I grew up there. The Wrens were part of that when we were younger. What inspires me always depends on who I’m around.”

According to Mendenhall, other influences on the Prom’s music include his father’s favorites Jackson Brown and Simon and Garfunkel, as well as Seattle artists Rosie Thomas and Pedro the Lion.

“The best part about touring is meeting people who like the music. But sometimes I don’t know what to say to them, so it feels kind of awkward,” Mendenhall says. “[After shows] I usually try and relax and not talk to many people, unless they want to talk to me, but for the most part, I avoid my band.”

Not a captivating front man in any conventional way, Mendenhall hid behind his beard and thick-framed glasses, immersed in the keyboard melodies that trickled throughout the show. He rarely spoke more than two words at a time to the crowd.

Even with this quiet awkwardness, Mendenhall passionately infuses his vocals and keyboarding with deliberate feeling, leaving us with great music that is energetic at times and somber at others.

In the immediate future, Mendenhall says he plans to record some songs for a new album slated for 2004, write more music while visiting Japan and start another tour. At the moment, though, the band continues their current tour with Carissa’s Wierd. And to keep himself busy on the road, Mendenhall says he’ll be playing Playstation 2 and reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

—Staff writer Sarah L. Solorzano can be reached at solorzan@fas.harvard.edu.