The Promise Ring: Wood/Water

[30 May 2002]

By Adrien Begrand

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Don't Stop Playing Guitar. Please!

Emo fans are fun to watch when they get mad. It’s like when guys like myself were metalheads years ago: you claim to be into music that’s far more creative and thought-provoking than most mainstream music, but the second an artist wants to stretch the boundaries of the genre, the fans get defensive, as they practically scream, “Blasphemer! Blasphemer!” Remember the ridiculous furor over among headbangers over Metallica’s haircuts back in 1996? Emo fans are the same. Here we have a quartet from Milwaukee, the Promise Ring, noted pioneers of All Things Emo. They’ve put out several quality guitar-pop albums, but the genre is starting to sound rather formulaic, with most bands starting to sound like carbon copies of each other. So, the Promise Ring opt to change things a little bit, and now many of their fans are up in arms because how they don’t sound like Jimmy Eat World or the Get Up Kids anymore. Besides, according to the unwritten rules of being a hipster doofus, it’s important to dump all over a band’s debut for a new label. After all, dude, they, like, sold out.

Hogwash, I say. The Promise Ring’s new album, Wood/Water is a remarkable piece of work, the high point of the band’s career. Gone are the loud, by-the-numbers guitars; instead, the album’s much quieter than anything they’ve done, there are subtle hints of keyboards, and the lyrics are a heckuvalot more contemplative. That kind of creative left turn can happen when one of your band members is diagnosed with a brain tumor, like TPR’s singer/guitarist Davey vonBohlen learned in April of 2000. Thankfully, his tumor was benign, and after a yearlong layoff, the Promise Ring started preparing for a new record, one that ended up vastly different than anything they’d done before.

The band’s detractors claim they’re abandoning their original sound, but aside from the slower tempos and quieter mood (think of the Flaming Lips crossed with Travis), they still exemplify the best traits of emo: original song arrangements, sincere singing (as opposed to the bloated caterwauling of, say, Scott Stapp), and heartfelt lyrics (as opposed to the bloated scribblings of, say, Scott Stapp). In fact, Wood/Water sounds more like a British record than an American one, thanks in large part to producer Stephen Street, whose previous production work includes Blur, the Cranberries, and the Smiths’ immortal The Queen is Dead. Recorded on a country estate in England, it’s a lush, languid album from start to finish, matching the equally lush album photography.

“I’ve been around before / And this time I don’t know what’s in store,” vonBohlen sings on Wood/Water‘s opening track, “Size of Your Life”, hinting that his difficult year has affected the way he sees his life shaping out. On the album’s captivating first single “Stop Playing Guitar”, his lyrics are as self-effacing as you’d expect from an emo band. “So if I had a dime for / Every time I should stop playing guitar and put my nose in a book / Well then my head would be healthy / And my guitar would be dusty / And that just might save me from a bunch of bad songs.” “Suffer Never”, the album’s most upbeat song, has the band in full Pete Yorn mode, while the enigmatically-titled “Become One Anything One Time” has a lightweight, dusk-in-the-summer feel, as vonBohlen lispily intones, “I’m just happy you stuck around.” “Wake Up April” “Bread and Coffee”, and “Half Year Sun” provide the album’s most mellow moments.

VonBohler’s lyrics hit a high point in the understated gem “My Life is at Home”, where the lines “Spring cleaning’s coming / ‘Cos we lose the cold weather / So put away your long johns / And all your thick sweaters / And cut off all our winter hair” will win over anyone who has lived in colder climes. He goes on to sing about “all the lukewarm weeks at 60 degrees”, hoping the sun will finally come out, and ends the song in magnificent fashion, using such spot-on, perfect down-home imagery it would make Paul Westerberg jealous: “All the humid nights / Parked under streetlights / And my baby’s riding shotgun / In her knee-high tights / She looks like heaven / But I feel like a devil / In my Sunday whites.”

Wood/Water climaxes with the ludicrous, six-and-a-half minute “Say Goodbye Good”, which seems to try to be the emo version of “Hey Jude”. Instead of singing about taking a sad song and making it better, though, vonBohler sings, “All there is after us is the songs that we play.” Uh, thanks for sharing that with us, Davey. Okay, that’s a step down in the lyrics department, down to, perhaps, Noel Gallager territory, circa “All Around the World”, but like Oasis’s tune, the irresistible melody transcends the goofy lyrics, building and building, until the gospel (huh?) “Hey hey hey” chorus goes on for three minutes, until, like it or not, you’re stuck with the silly melody in your head for the rest of the day. It’s egregiously inane, but so is the title “emo”. I liked it a lot.

This is a great little album. It’s great to see the Promise Ring stretch out their sound, and an even greater pleasure to listen to Wood/Water, and it sure would be nice to see the band match the success that Jimmy Eat World is currently enjoying. If you are looking for good, smart, catchy, unpretentious music, you can’t go wrong with these guys. If anyone trying to be overly cool tries to tell you otherwise, don’t believe ‘em. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/promisering-wood/