Nothing screams “rock cliche” like the genre-sweeping, “we’re using weird instrumentation because we’re artists”-sort of record that so many bands put out in the wake of exploding into mass popularity.
The Promise Ring could certainly be considered a candidate for one of those albums. While the band had built a solid following with its debut, 30° Everywhere, it wasn’t until 1997’s Nothing Feels Good that the band exploded into the hippest reaches of the indie rock stratosphere. Davey Von Bohlen’s poetic, abstract lyrics floated over droning guitars, with an occasional pop hook or shout of “Bop Bop Bop” to brighten things up. Gems like “Is This Thing On?” and “Why Did Ever We Meet” merged pop smarts with the emo of 30° and hinted that greatness was just around the corner. The pressure was on to put out that groundbreaking, eclectic album that eveyone expects from a band that’s just exploded, and with that pressure it’s easy to head back in the studio, use more tricks in recording than a magician on stage, and really screw things up.
So by making a simpler record than its predecessor was, the Promise Ring have succeeded where so many bands have failed; instead of trying to top Sgt. Pepper’s, the band’s churned out 10 songs of pop-punk.
The switch to simplicity is obvious from the outset. The opener, “Happiness Is All the Rage,” is a bouncy, hooky blast of pop that shouts out exactly what the band’s about to do: have fun. There’s no slowing down as the song segues into “Emergency! Emergency!,” the most urgent song the band’s ever recorded and one that’s just as punchy as the pop-punk that’s being produced in Berkeley. In the case of both cuts, just as what follows on the rest of the album, the song structure is conventional, the lyrics are ironic but never obtuse, and the verses ride over one or two chords rather than anything of intricate design.
There are pauses for a few ballads (“Things Just Getting Good” is as pretty as anything off of 30° Everywhere and Nothing Feels Good), but for the most part, Very Emergency never strays the course from fist-pumping punk. The lyrical content never turns negative (as in Von Ohlen’s shouts of “You dropped a bomb on my bad day” on “The End of the World”), and the tempo never slows. Love’s in the air on the Weezer-esque bounce of “Skips a Beat,” and humor abounds on songs like “Arms & Danger.” As you dig deeper and deeper into the album, you realize that “Happiness Is All the Rage” is a manifesto, a forceful shout of what the Promise Ring are now all about.
Mistakes? None. While some might miss Von Ohlen’s poetry, his lyrics are just as heartfelt as ever. And when he shouts “I was born in 1968, born to replace Bobby Kennedy—Oh yeah!,” you shake your head and laugh at what’s nonsense and genius at the same time. Musically Very Emergency is flawless. The playing is tight, and the production by J. Robbins of Jawbox fame is exceptional, bringing the Ring’s pop smarts to the forefront like never before.
Very Emergency is brilliant by consciously avoiding brilliance. Its intentional simplicity charms and energizes like nothing the band has ever done. With just three chords and a gift for bringing out grins on the faces of its listeners, Very Emergency says more than most bands do in a lifetime.