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The Promise Ring

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The best Promise Ring songs have been lessons in nerdy intensity, little reminders that emo was created because, for many folks, Saturday night’s not all right for fighting. The Milwaukee band’s overall harmlessness can be both endearing and annoying, but underneath the suburban niceties, there’s an undeniable knack for hooks. One thing has changed for the Promise Ring over the past half-decade, though: Outright speed—especially the sugary propulsiveness of discs such as 1997’s Nothing Feels Good and 1999’s Very Emergency—has fallen from the agenda, to the point that the band’s fifth full-length, Wood/Water, is a layered, midtempo magnum opus. But just because the guitar juice is gone doesn’t mean the heart can’t go on. Frontman Davey von Bohlen—who had a fist-sized benign tumor removed from his brain in 2000—is alternately reflective and absorbent, contemplating his role in society and soaking up simple pleasures. “So maybe I am too polite,” he sings during “Stop Playing Guitar,” describing later how he might methodically scam a phone number at a party. Pace has obviously become important to him: To the title character of “Wake Up April,” he quietly intones, “It’ll be summer soon/And you’ll be sipping your morning coffee in the afternoon/Walking slowly with nowhere to go.” After a while, it becomes clear that the spaciousness of Wood/Water is necessary; shoving these tunes into buzzy power-pop structures would’ve betrayed von Bohlen & Co.’s we-gotta-grow-up instinct. And it helps that the disc’s sonic guidance counselors—Beastie Boys protege Mario Caldato Jr. and Britpop legend Stephen Street—resisted the urge to make the band sound overly mysterious. But that’s not to say that the Promise Ring’s synth experiments and newly lazy rhythms always hit the mark: The keyboard riff of “Suffer Never,” for instance, is a gratingly pale imitation of the Flaming Lips’ “Race for the Prize,” and the album’s “Hey Jude”-ish climax, “Say Goodbye Good,” is far too cute for its own good. Those errors in judgment should be forgiven, though: Transitional records are tough to make, especially when a band knows its past formulas are money in the bank. —Joe Warminsky