The Promise Ring
30° Everywhere / Nothing Feels Good / Very Emergency (Vinyl Reissues)
by Chad Jewett
The Promise Ring were emo’s great optimists. Like The Get Up Kids or Braid, the Wisconsin quartet built a recognizably specific and fertile world across a fairly brief discography, but The Promise Ring’s version of that detail-rich suburban Midwest was far more defined by a certain upbeat Americana wit rather than the more acerbic bite of Braid or the wistful melodrama of The Get Up Kids. Even when songs like “A Picture Postcard” offer their share of pathos, they’re nevertheless continually buoyed by Davey von Bohlen’s clever wordplay and his pleasantly eccentric imagism (“A Picture Postcard”, for instance, ends warmly with an understated little joke like “I’m convinced that you’re from mars”). There’s no denying that emo’s second wave is suffuse with songs and albums that double as impressionistic maps of middle-American towns full of melancholy post-adolescents (American Football, Departures and Landfalls, Frame & Canvas, Fevers and Mirrors — all come to mind); the Promise Ring set themselves apart by finding charm in that sense of place, rather than an autumnal sadness.
The past two years or so have seen long-overdue reissues of many of these important post-hardcore documents – the past twelve months alone brought new vinyl re-presses from Boys Life, The Get Up Kids, American Football, Jawbreaker and the Jazz June – and it’s gratifying to see Jade Tree Records finally giving The Promise Ring the expansive re-release they deserve, reissuing the band’s first three albums, 30° Everywhere, Nothing Feels Good, and Very Emergency. In a literal sense, it’s nice to hear a proper remastering of 30° Everywhere (which benefits the most from this re-release) or to finally have a readily-available vinyl cut of Very Emergency. But on a more nuanced level, there’s a real cultural value in watching The Promise Ring’s place get reasserted as the history of post-hardcore’s most compelling decade (let’s say 1993-2003) begins to harden into orthodoxy.
For anyone who bought these records back when The Promise Ring were still a band, it must certainly be shocking to see the quartet so frequently left out of the conversations we have about post-hardcore and punk in 2015, this despite the sheer consistency of their discography (which extends to the band’s woefully underrated last LP, Wood/Water). Indeed, noting just how different the band’s approach to the sentimental narratives — impressionistic and elliptical — and the expansive sound of emo — more streamlined, more defined by strums than winding arpeggios — is important. The group’s sense of whimsy, and their consistent tendency to render their snapshots of relationships and complex feelings from oblique angles (consider the unique fact of a song titled “Heart Of A Broken Story” that ends up being mostly a tone-poem about an old shirt, its attached memories left to our imagination) actually makes The Promise Ring one of the most valuable bands of its time, place, and scene. Their discography ends up being a nice, usable archive as the genre continues to grow past its latent sexism and problematic gender dynamics. The Promise Ring were rarely bitter or angry; more often their songs seemed charged with a goofy, eminently likable imagination.
But Jade Tree’s reissues also give us the chance to simply hear these records again, which turns out to be a delight. 30° Everywhere especially shines this time around, if only because the classic Nothing Feels Good is so essential a document that you hardly have to listen to it to hear it. Instead, getting reacquainted with an album that might otherwise often be understood as a rough-draft ends up being the best part of this set. More quiet and somber, more devoted to stretched-out mood pieces than the sugary bursts of the band’s next two LPs, 30° Everywhere does find the band still figuring out the specifics of their sound (the thick strums and U.S.-atlas specificity of “Everywhere In Denver” and “Between Pacific Coasts” especially seem to anticipate Nothing), but it also means that for every spindly, power-pop sprint like “Red Paint” that lies at the heart of The Promise Ring’s aesthetic, there’s the gorgeous quiet of “Picture Postcard” (one of the group’s absolute best) or the crisp, measured ambiance of “We Don’t Like Romance”. Nothing Feels Good never quite slows down, meaning you listen to it as an eager blur, which has everything to do with why it’s so beloved. 30° Everywhere is instead defined by a more open sense of space and a more deliberate pace – their next two records would race through their painterly Midwest; 30° Everywhere takes its time. The album ends up being The Promise Ring’s most absorbing release, even if it lacks the sturdy, confident sense of purpose that would define their next two LPs.
But Nothing Feels Good remains The Promise Ring’s tour de force, their defining achievement. Clocking in at a lean 35 minutes (that’s less than 3 minutes a song) and never going much slower than the rocketing dash of album opener “Is This Thing On”, the album’s permanent major-key cheerfulness and Polaroid-esque images of Americana perfectly reflect the ultra-bright primary colors of its indelible album cover. But like that cover image – a boarded up amusement park on a radiant blue-sky day – there’s just the faintest bittersweet hint to songs like “Why Did We Ever Meet?”, which, despite its sparkling jangle and effervescent hooks, nevertheless carries a certain melancholy: “Under that threat of sky we lie together / Why care about the weather / It only ends in dark”. Yet the lion’s share of the album is still dominated by the giddy likes of “A Broken Tenor” and “Forget Me”, songs content to ride those clean, sun-dappled strums and warm melodies for their allotted two minutes-and-change. Indeed, it’s interesting to consider this album’s place in emo’s canon (where it is as essential and revered as American Football and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and Diary) when the aesthetic (ultra-efficient guitar pop) and narratives (abstract collections of pure scenery) are so unique that they don’t really adhere much to any genre.
In fact, Nothing Feels Good is entirely underrated as an avant-garde document. Nothing Feels Good might be traditionally shelved next to Something To Write Home About and Frame & Canvas, but it also shares some of the modernist fastidiousness of Wire. The album is significantly experimental, managing to feel like a collection of distinct, carefully-etched spaces, even as several songs, like “Make Me A Chevy” and “Red and Blue Jeans” barely exceed 50 words. Indeed, the latter consists of Von Bohlen repeating “Nothing feels good like you in red and blue jeans and your white and night things” a handful of times as the band circles around a bare minimum of chords, the song’s main attraction actually being the interaction between bassist Scott Beschta and drummer Dan Didier, always a key aspect of the bubbling energy that hums beneath so much of The Promise Ring’s best work. The album can feel like an experiment in reduction, Hemingway-esque in its sharp selection of language. Nothing Feels Good is at once a study in impressionism – the LP is essentially a photo album of psychedelically-painted houses, roadside curios, and fondly-remembered landscapes – and in minimalism, so that a song like “Perfect Lines”, which is essentially a two-minute space for Von Bohlen’s wordplay (“From BellSouth down to a Southern Belle”), could just as easily be a thesis statement for the album’s clean-lined cubism and its meticulously precise poetry.
Very Emergency, which would come out two years after Nothing Feels Good, leans even further on the previous album’s power-pop, yielding the band’s most striking collection of melodies and choruses. Where Nothing Feels Good would use its hypnotic slideshow of idiosyncratic images – red and blue jeans, pink chimneys, old cars, autumn leaves – to stick to your brain, Very Emergency gained purchase through the sheer hooky punch of songs like “Happiness Is All The Rage” and “Happy Hour” (“Where are we living now / Where are we living now”) and the Weezer-esque pop confections of “The Jersey Shore” and “Arms And Danger”. Producer J Robbins, who had lent Nothing Feels Good a punchy lightness to match its easy-going charm, adds some bulk and higher definition to Very Emergency that matches its very real pop instincts. Glockenspiel glimmers in “Arms and Danger” and a distinct tambourine jangles throughout “Happiness”, while smart secondary riffs add extra melody to “Emergency! Emergency!” and “Happiness Is All The Rage”, evincing a richer approach to building songs that would reach full blossom two years later on Wood/Water. And though the songs don’t carry on von Bohlen’s idiosyncratic minimalism, they nevertheless maintain his wordplay (“I was born in 1968 to replace Robert Kennedy” goes on characteristic line) and worldview (for instance, this time The Promise Ring atlas includes the Deep South and the boardwalks of the Jersey Shore).
The Promise Ring were utterly unique, a fact that this excellent reissue set can only underline. But what this collection really reiterates, the thing that you might have otherwise lost sight of, is just how distinct the universe the quartet dreamed up actually was, even as, from album to album, the band never actually sounded the same. What we’re left with are three albums that seem to carry that exhilarating aura of four people telling similar stories about the world – a world that is wholly convincing — even as the way they tell those stories keeps growing. Not unlike the roving camera that defines so many of their songs, The Promise Ring never stopped moving.