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Listen up, Sony, for here comes fresh fodder: Indie-pop’s answer to the corporate boy bands are self-described “humble” white guys from the heartland, wholesome punk rockers who make girls swoon and other boys cry. They write simple songs, easily swallowed by the public. They’re cute…and available.
So when do you think the corporate midwives will start delivering little emo babies?
Well, before we start handing out cigars, we must remember that the Promise Ring is still without a major-label deal. For now, the band’s on Delaware’s Jade Tree Records, amassing mad amounts of indie cred and garnering juicy spreads in alt-rock glossies—a long way to come for four kids whose past credits include the posthumously famous Cap’n Jazz. They have softened to become fuzzy and companionable, the darlings of a national music press waking up 10 years too late.
Here’s the catch: The band’s latest record, Very Emergency, is nothing to wow the stockholders. Sure, it’s got pop hooks. In fact, they’re lying right in front of you, completely naked and easy—nothing more than simple excuses for simple songs. And, all right, honesty in pop is a good thing. But this is a studio lie. While fiddling with knobs and flirting with success, the Promise Ring lost its innocence—the charm of playing music that was just…fun. This time around, we are left with shadows from the past, the downside of a lot of spare cash and too much muddling in a big studio.
Flashback to the fall of ’97, when the Promise Ring delivered its second full-length LP, Nothing Feels Good. It was raw and insanely catchy. Its charm lay in its quirky annoyances and blatant cliches. It sold you on crappy vocals, power chords, quickly bouncing rhythm, and plenty o’ heart. It made overly cheesy sentiment almost digestible.
On the road, the Promise Ring found friends in kids and even stuffy New York Times critics who liked the band’s latest take on D.C.’s 1985 punk scene and the soon-to-be-shopworn term “emo-core.” The band seemed to be headed in the right direction. All of a sudden, the ever-fickle indie halo began to hover somewhere over Ring-quarters in Milwaukee. A million copycats emerged from nowhere, as Alternative Press, Spin, and even Playboy ran pieces about the emerging nth wave of emo.
It’s from this throne that the Promise Ring now descends, according to label press, moving on and “despising” the past. Too bad. Whereas Nothing Feels Good began on a huge, anthemic plunge into pop rock, Very Emergency just plays through, hungover, while you sit there in sort of a daze. Listening to Emergency is like waiting in a bread line: It seems as if it might go on forever, and when it finally does end, you’re left with something too stale to enjoy.
The album starts lazy and stays lazy. Singer-guitarist Davey vonBohlen tries to get us going with a lukewarm, meaningless thought (more useless in its offering than in its meaning), which falls flat: “Happiness Is All the Rage” repeats itself time and again, issuing midtempo radio riffs and barely believable vocals. Come to think of it, it is a proper introduction to Very Emergency.
As vonBohlen goes on, he manages to lose energy, and we lose interest. Where Nothing Feels Good would scream and rock us, Very Emergency tries and fails to cajole us; the tracks no longer surprise despite their simple, well-placed, cleverly crafted parts.
As an experiment, I put on the record with the volume turned down. Periodically, I give my receiver some juice, hoping to be amazed by something I’ve missed. Doesn’t happen. Indeed, there is not a distinctive part on the whole album. The tempo and vocal intensity rarely change. It sounds as though the Promise Ring went into the studio with a single, pulled out all the hooks, and stretched them into a record.
“Happiness Is All the Rage” crashes right into the back of “Emergency! Emergency!” without so much as a break—a trick that works well in the hands of solid songwriters, but cracks up in the clumsy mitts of the Promise Ring. I have to look at the CD player to tell that the record has moved on, and I still don’t believe it.
Time crawls by, and, through Track 5, “Things Just Getting Good,” (ha ha) so does more of the same midtempo, radio-ready rock. My mind begins to wander. I start picking up my room. Around Track 7, “Jersey Shore,” I wonder if I’m being brainwashed. The guitars are all together now, plugging away at the same riff, repeating repeating repeating. At “All of My Everythings,” a lethargic drum beat starts up, and before long, the record’s over. I think I might be OK.
Then I check out the lyrics. To put it lightly, vonBohlen is not the next Sondheim. He’s not even the next Ginsberg. He is a master of meaningless metaphor, and he offers up rhymes like: “I know the coffee leaves by car, because it goes fast really far,” or “I know bridges and houses are learning to fly, only secretly so we won’t know why,” and “In the deep south of heaven on the wavering line where Tennessee will leave just in time.” In the past, such lyrical shortcomings didn’t matter, because there was plenty of rock to grab onto. But Very Emergency offers vonBohlen nowhere to hide his fits of poor poetry.
Amid this mess, there are hints of former greatness. Despite its similarity to the rest of the album, “Emergency! Emergency!” contains a piece of drumbeat that fakes me out, and around halfway through, in “Things Just Getting Good,” a cello adds a touch of beauty. But that’s about it.
While camped out at Arlington’s very own Inner Ear Studios, the Promise Ring lived out a classic law of pop production: If you iron out the kinks of a fabulous rock band, you’re more than likely to lose what makes it fabulous—even when it isn’t. What’s funny and doubly tragic is that the band didn’t have to bow to major-label pressure. It simply rolled over and died, without so much as a signing bonus. CP