Ask Celene (Leeni) Ramadan, the creative force behind Prom Queen, why she's so drawn to that kitsch 1950s and '60s aesthetic—the beehives, the roller skates, the drive-ins, and the forlorn, love-lost songbirds of doo-wop and blues—and she'll say she doesn't quite know.
"It's really a mystery. I wonder if it has something to do with a past life, or maybe it seeped into the womb from my parents," she jokes, musing about her possible past life as a bobby-socked, poodle-skirt-wearing, blonde-ponytailed teenager listening to records on a lonely Friday night.
"I think the best way I could describe it is, it just sort of feels... haunted." And that's exactly the sort of spirit Ramadan is trying to evoke in Doom-Wop—Prom Queen's new album, out September 23 (the release party for it happens on that date at the Piranha Shop).
The 10 songs on Doom-Wop match the album's title perfectly: honey-laden, sultry-voiced but foreboding songs, at times tinged with a dimly glowing despair, and at other times drenched in it.
"I feel like there's a creepy beauty to it," she says of the album. "I like to call it Twisted Americana. It's not quite on-the-nose Americana. It's something that's a little darker."
Ramadan says that while making Doom-Wop, she wanted to capture the sense of uneasiness that she had been feeling (and continues to feel) about the state of the world these days. But she says she also wanted to create music that could transport someone into another world... one filled with melodic melancholy layered over acrid undertones—like a milkshake mixed with a martini (it sounds better than it tastes!).
Ramadan even accomplishes this effect in a way that feels more nuanced than an Amy Winehouse, or even a Lana Del Rey, a tricky thing to do in such a formalistically stylized genre.
In fact, it's the songs on the album that stray from that tried-and-true doo-wop format that are most appealing—and they're some of Ramadan's favorites. "Manic Panic" adds some mid-song power-pop riffs to the mix, managing to energize the song without sounding out of place.
For "Why Do You Dream" (my favorite song off the album because of the "stalker" vibe lurking underneath the syrupy-sweet veneer of the seemingly innocent words), the band used wine glasses and a thunder tube to make unnerving backdrop sounds that, Ramadan says, "would make you feel like you're in a horror movie."
"I just felt like putting a sweet, straightforward love song on the record wasn't quite what I wanted to do," Ramadan says. "I definitely feel like it's hard for me to do anything just, like, totally straightforwardly."
This time around, Ramadan, who has in the past made most of her albums on her computer, is recording live with a band in the studio, giving Doom-Wop a different kind of feel than the highly orchestrated Midnight Veil, Prom Queen's 2014 album. She's ditched the Mellotron and symphonic strings for a more natural but no less dramatic swooping sound.
"It was really cool to do the thing where you're playing as a band into the board, and singing the scratch track along with the band. I'd never done that before!" Ramadan exclaims.
And for anyone who liked Prom Queen's 2012 album, Covers (filled with fun versions of songs by Björk, Madonna, INXS, Pixies, and more), there is one cover on Doom-Wop—"November Rain" by Guns N' Roses, a gently swaying rendition that makes you want to slow dance and put your head on someone's shoulder (at the prom, of course).
You definitely have to be in the right mood for Doom-Wop to pick up on its cinematic, mystical qualities—a mood that feels like Patsy Cline meets Valley of the Dolls, or maybe Ozzie and Harriet meets Twin Peaks.
"Doom-Wop is Lesley Gore after she listened to a bunch of Morrissey records," Ramadan laughs. "It's like, what if Lesley Gore was able to speak her mind a little bit more and talk about her existential dread?"