Grand Hallway – Promenade

Grand Hallway - Promenade

Grand Hallway - Promenade

It’s practically a cliché in these days of Twitter and Facebook to peg a rising musical phenomenon as being poised for a breakthrough in the mainstream, or to assign them the title of “the next big thing.”  While Myspace and Youtube will occasionly lead you to a group that is indeed worthy of the “buzz band” tag, it also seems inevitable that you’ll encounter a barrage of sonically inept hacks who think that access to a laptop and a microphone reserves them the right to unleash their musical visions on the rest of the planet.

I’m not sure if the folks that make up Seattle’s Grand Hallway are even considered a buzz band as of yet, but such a label would only help to reinforce the idea that they are mere novices, trying to compete with everyone else in cyberspace for just a bit of your time and money.  They certainly don’t sound like it.  Leader Tomo Nakayama and his rotating cast of ensemble musicians play with a confidence uncommon to most burgeoning indie acts.  As it happens, the songs on their second album, Promenade, also happen to make good on the implications of majesty and beauty in its title.  With extraordinarily varied instrumentation that includes violin, vibraphone, banjo, mandolin, as well as the omnipresent guitars and drums, Grand Hallway specializes in fragile and achingly gorgeous chamber pop that is just as transcendent as anything the Arcade Fire can pull off.  But unlike Win Butler’s crew, the music of Grand Hallway is rarely, if ever, theatrical; never has vulnerability seem so coolly assured.

Making a nod to his Asian heritage, Nakayama has peppered the LP with oriental flavor.  Whether it’s the occasional pentatonic scale or lyrics sung in Japanese, images of the Far East factor prominently into the music, even as the vaguely country-ish tones of a banjo and pedal steel float by. 

Promenade is a perfectly sequenced listen from start to finish, but the band makes its boldest statements in the first batch of songs.  Opener “Raindrops (Matsuri)” features soaring wordless vocals, a catchy trumpet countermelody, and technically demanding acoustic guitar work.  The tune is the first of many audacious love songs in which simple statements like “I want to be with you when you’re starting out,” come across with startling gravity.  “Blessed Be, Honey Bee” is another example of the band’s tremendous songwriting capabilities, featuring handclaps and joyful lead vocals that seamlessly blend with a chorus of falsetto voices.  The track is a musically enrapturing take on being in love, even as Nakayama contemplates dormancy with lyrics like, “When you’re laying next to me / I’m a hibernating grizzly bear.” 

Every track on Promenade is a winner, but the album’s most arresting song is easily “In a Cave.”  With gauzy vibraphones, feather-light vocals, and ghostly piano harmonies, the song’s lilting groove is perfectly suited to a sunset walk on the beach.  You simply can’t help but slacken your pace a bit and take a deep breath as Nakayama sings, “Feel the earth move slowly ‘neath your hurried feet.”

Closer to album’s end is the mini-epic “Sirens,” which features some disarming and dramatic volume swells that show just how well the band understands the concept of tension and release.  After hearing such tenuous piano melodies and cynical lyrics deriding the glamorous notion of dating musicians (I’m getting much too old / it’s not funny anymore / you think it’s so romantic / the life of a musician / who is poor”), the song’s outro shakes itself loose with an uninhibited jam that comes at precisely the right moment.

At this point, no extended metaphors or witty non-sequiturs on my part can provide any further justification for making this LP part of your collection.  When it’s released to the general public on September 15, I think you’ll find the music speaks for itself.