July 12, 2002

Prom still painful

The Prom

Under the Same Stars

Barsuk Records

James Mendenhall, lead singer and songwriter of the Prom, was not a happy man when the group recorded their second LP, Under the Same Stars. Of the ten songs on the album with lyrical content, all ten describe romance gone wrong. There are several sub-genres of the venerable pop music stand-by known as "romance gone wrong," of course: there are songs about unrequited love, songs about intense love that burns itself out, and songs that brag about a supposed emotional recovery. Mendenhall traffics here in a very specific sub-genre: romances where the two parties very gradually grow apart but very abruptly split. He finds a number of ways to describe either this process or its fatalistic aftermath. "I know that I look awkwardly alone waiting for the phone," he sings on the album's second track, "Cause I know when she calls I just might smile and live for a while." Or consider the revelation in Japan (where some of these songs were written) he recounts in "Brighter than the Stars," arguably the album's standout: "On a Tokyo train I realized that I was fighting myself and losing inside. Everyone makes mistakes, yeah that much is clear." Anyone looking for a tiny bit of hope that life goes on and time heals all wounds will be severely let down by the album's final track, "It's Not My Fault," where a marriage proposal becomes "a question hard to resist…resisted…resisted." While he's not the first human being to wallow in depression and self-doubt after a break-up, and definitely not the first musician to deal with such feelings through his lyrics, the maturity of Mendenhall's sentiments gives them some sense of originality and makes up for their humorlessness. These are not songs about post-graduation splits—they are songs about broken marriages. There's nothing juvenile about them, and this most certainly is not melodramatic adolescent navel-gazing.

The musical virtues of the Prom compensate for Mendenhall's gloom. Bandmates Joel Brown and David Broecker are, like Mendenhall, talented musicians, and the music on this album is thus vibrant and enjoyable—piano melodies come to the fore on each track, with Brown's percussion keeping things bright and up-tempo. It all fits well into the realm of "nice" music, and the lush instrumentation (including guest brass and string sections) and Mendenhall's accomplished vocals allow you to forget about exactly what he's singing about, at least for a little while. If you purchase music at all, you probably don't need another album about broken hearts. Lucky for you that Under the Same Stars can be appreciated even if you're not staring desperately at the phone, playing music to muffle the sounds of your own sobs.