Starting Five: The Promise Ring


Starting Five: The Promise Ring

More or less an opportunity for the Internet to tell us we’re wrong, Starting Five is also a challenge: choose five essential songs, films, or books that get to the heart of bands, filmmakers, and writers that we love. Today’s subject: The Promise Ring.

by Chad Jewett

“A Picture Postcard”, from 30° Everywhere

While the archetypal version of The Promise Ring largely consisted of minimum chords, strummed earnestly, the band’s first album, 30° Everywhere was slightly more of a piece with what emo was before the mini-generation typified by the band’s Nothing Feels Good and its era (the album’s pop-oriented, clean-guitar bursts helped shape the best work from bands like The Get Up Kids and The Anniversary, et al). Darker and more focused on mood and dynamics than the sugar-rush of their later work, “Picture Postcard” is one of the few Promise Ring songs that sounds like it comes from the same galaxy as Mineral or Sunny Day Real Estate, crystallizing an album defined by a slightly more prickly sound, a bit more attention to atmosphere, and a minimalism that differed from the long-form strums of Nothing Feels Good. Built around little more than gauzy, muted strums and a spindly wire of a guitar riff, “A Picture Postcard” lands like The Promise Ring’s version of slow-core, with a faint hang-over of the twirling aesthetic of singer Davey Von Bohlen’s last band, Cap’n Jazz, hanging in the margins. Presaging the ultra-compact poetry of Nothing Feels Good, “A Picture Postcard” offers a brief-yet-detailed slice of life narrative (“Couldn’t you take the second bus home? / If I put my hands to your stomach or put my lips to your hand / Birmingham has gone to motors, motors) that, in mixing charming befuddlement, goofy romanticism, and an obsession with place names and transportation, would presage the band’s next, most brilliant album.

“Is This Thing On”, from Nothing Feels Good

Not only is “Is This Thing On” a thrilling highlight from one of emo’s Mount Rushmore LPs, it might just represent one of the genre’s signature moments, post-hardcore’s version of Motown and the “My Girl” bassline, or golden era New York hip-hop and the shimmering keyboards that begin “Juicy.” Erupting in soda-fizz pop-core forward motion with such energy that it almost sounds like a fraction of a second was cut from the recording, “Is This Thing On” is a brief, athletic, delirious three minutes of super-charged emo, definitive enough to stand with the pick-scrape that begins “Holiday” or the loping intro riff of “Seven.” Setting the conversational, repeat-poetry style of Nothing Feels Good, an album that found poignant connection in hammering away at the unexpectedly significant details of every day life, “Is This Thing On” contains less than fifty words, mainly concerned with free-association word play (“Delaware are you aware of the air supply”). More than any song on the album – which doesn’t have a weak moment to speak of – “Is This Thing On” clarifies the challenge The Promise Ring were laying down for themselves, their listeners, and the emo genre – a conceptual project wherein the band asks us to truly consider what the proper nouns and place names in our lives might add up to, what meanings they might carry, emotional or otherwise.

“Forget Me”, from Nothing Feels Good

Anticipating the more classicist song structures to be found on the band’s next album, Very Emergency, “Forget Me” closes Nothing Feels Good with the album’s biggest chorus and its most definitive statement. The song manages both some of Von Bohlen’s most striking free-association impressionism (“Vanilla almond teeth from vanilla almond tea / Spent afternoons measuring time in spoons,” “I’m a lantern, my head a moon”) as well as some of its most direct emotional communication (“Where forget-me-nots and marigolds and other things that don’t get old, don’t get old / Between one June and September you’re all I remember”), finally connecting the dots on the album’s central thesis of small things adding up to big feelings. Marrying gentle, sparkling verses of gorgeous out-door imagery to the band’s finest hook to date, “Forget Me” is a moving ending to the band’s finest thirty minutes, a sun-bright apotheosis of their deceivingly simple poetics.

“Happiness Is All The Rage”, Very Emergency

Given the band’s unshakable status as one of emo’s First Team greats, the instinct is to assume a certain amount of irony in a line like “Happiness Is All The Rage.” And yet irony was never really a part of the game for The Promise Ring, a band that, if anything, was defined by an earnest over-investment in things (see “Make Me A Chevy” and the kind of reveries Davey Von Bohlen can squeeze out of the song’s titular auto) rather than a distancing detachment. More to the point, “Happiness Is All The Rage” exemplifies the album it begins, Very Emergency, a record that took the bursting, pop-bright guitars of Nothing Feels Good and used them to build sturdy, geometric songs. Thus, not only does “Happiness Is All The Rage” offer a new glimpse of lyrical directness from Von Bohlen (loose metaphors of locations and proper nouns are replaced with statements like: “AndI am so filled with just one girl / My eyes barely open, I can barely read / So this is the end of the past, the first sign of first light / Yeah, now, it’s alright between us”) but the song’s structure would reveal the band’s increasing taste for classicist chord progressions and more recognizably power-pop aesthetics. The calculus made Very Emergency an easy album to like, but also a record with fewer oblique angles on which to grasp, though they’re there if you look for them. As a less thorny and more easily understood version of The Promise Ring, “Happiness Is All The Rage” is exemplary, one the rewards attention, even if it doesn’t demand it.

“Size of Your Life”, from Wood/Water

In all the handwringing over what Wood/Water wasn’t – loud, extroverted, a reissue of Nothing Feels Good – it would appear that most people lost sight of what the album was: poignant, gorgeous, tender, compelling; all words that characterize the album’s opening song, “Size of Your Life.” Built around a more rustic version of the same middle-tempo strum that had shown up periodically on every Promise Ring record, “Size of Your Life” is a gentle, lovely interlude of late-afternoon weariness, the same grown-up version of emo that The Get Up Kids and Jets To Brazil were experimenting with around this time, with similar audience reaction. Von Bohlen’s voice, at its most affectingly expressive here, lights through the crackle of studio distortion, giving a not-unpleasant sadness to lyrics about life’s rigors and doubts (“I’ve been around before / But this time I don’t know what’s in store / Baby I don’t know what’s in store”). There remains an obsession with detail (“The back of your hand / The stereo hums ’cause it’s up too loud”) and some wonderful, spooling riffs, this time with a welcome layer of alt-country dust. Wood/Water is utterly deserving of reassessment and rediscovery, a project made easy by the tired, sylvan beauty of its opening statement.

Honorable Mentions
“Mineral Point”, from The Horse Latitudes
“Why Did We Ever Meet”, from Nothing Feels Good
“Strictly Television”, from Electric Pink EP
“Things Just Getting Good”, from Very Emergency

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Half Cloth

Independent Music & Arts Criticism

4 Responses

  1. May 27, 2014

    […] Saves The Day, Moneen, or The Execution of All Things; for Dowsing, think of early Get Up Kids or 30° Everywhere), except that Annabel and Dowsing may have an even better instinct for figuring out what intangible […]

  2. June 12, 2014

    […] monumental Nothing Feels Good and giving them a glossier sheen for a punchier set of songs, The Promise Ring’s 1999 album Very Emergency is a gleefully hook-filled album, the sound of a band with seemingly […]

  3. July 31, 2014

    […] Pink showed up almost immediately after The Promise Ring’s third album, Very Emergency, and for the most part, it shows. Made up of the same muscular […]

  4. November 5, 2015

    […] 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. […]

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