CD Reviews: New Music From Grand Hallway and J. Tillman

Grand HallwayPromenade (self-released)Two of the grandest sophomore discs in Seattle music arrived at the SW offices around the same time, from the Mat Brooke–led Grand Archives and the Tomo Nakayama–fronted Grand Hallway. While the former is full of strained songs that don't take listeners anywhere, Grand Hallway's newest album, Promenade, is a monorail ride into the orchestral-pop genius of Nakayama and his band. The eight-person ensemble employs a bevy of instruments—banjo, mandolin, pedal steel, vibraphones, and beyond—but it's the vocals and arrangements that resonate loudest. On songs like "Blessed Be, Honey Bee," chords shift and progress at the right moments to help the tune avoid becoming repetitive. "Under the Roof" is one of the album's best, with sprinklings of cabasa and mandolin giving way to Nakayama's falsetto. It's an improvement over the group's 2007's offering, Yes Is the Answer, as the chamber-pop feel here is more tightly woven and pronounced. Oddly enough, "Usagi No Uta," the lone tune sung in Nakayama's native Japanese, doesn't sound foreign to this disc at all. Members of the Maldives, Sleepy Eyes of Death, and Widower lend instrumental support, and there's a noticeable autumn-driven Northwest vibe lying underneath it all. "Pearrygin (Quite a Quiet)" is the album's only throwaway track; it feels like drunken heartache music from a spaghetti Western. Minus that misstep, on Promenade, Grand Hallway, specifically Nakayama, demonstrates why the band no longer deserves to be known exclusively as a regional talent. JONATHAN CUNNINGHAMJ TillmanYear in the Kingdom (Western Vinyl)There is an undeniable spiritual element to J Tillman's latest record, Year in the Kingdom. The album's opener and title track tells of a man beginning a journey toward something larger, something beyond the physical dimension. Tillman's soulful yet relaxed voice quivers over a chord progression that is dragged and strained. On "Crosswinds," the use of guitar, hammered dulcimer, and muted percussion gives the listener an inkling of what feeling Tillman is trying to convey—one of love, loss, and transition.The lyrics on this album, Tillman's sixth, are mysterious, although not as dark and lonesome as one might think. He is telling stories, in some cases miniature allegories, of what beauty it is to pass from one point to the next, either from life to living or life to death. His focus on such concepts is thought-provoking and incomprehensibly complex."Age of Man" is the album's apex. Though the song's placement does expose the plateau that precedes it, where stronger rhythmic and tempo variance may have established greater emotional depth, Tillman's lyrics nonetheless come through with weight and sincerity. Year in the Kingdom is a well-written album, whose stripped-down instrumentation ironically gives it greater character. JOSEF ALTON

 
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