Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Promise Ring ‎– Wood/Water (2002)

Davey Von Bohlen had a spongy growth clipped from his brain around the time his band, the Promise Ring, issued a song called "Make Me a Mixtape." It's understandable that, in his condition, the about-30-years-old lisp-singer would re-evaluate his and the Promise Ring's place in the Grand Scheme. So it's odd, then, that his latest album, which jumps from the one-finger "power" pop of previous records to mellow bells-n-thistles studioscapes, feels more like failed market research than soul searching.
Saves the Day and Dashboard Confessional's success must knot TPR's tight little vintage t-shirts in a bunch. The Promise Ring were way ahead of the curve with that stuff; on their first seven-inch, they sketched the emo template with a mechanical pencil rubbing of Sunny Day Real Estate. Then, over the course of a few gigs at Fireside Bowl, Von Bohlen whittled his songwriting down to the sound of two guitars and two hands clapping. The ba-ba-ba's of Pepsi-shilling sheep replaced the whines and cries of college guys lamenting unbearable distances (154 miles, typically) between upstate public universities and hometown honies. At first, emo purists — and those kids really knew how to stand for something — guffawed. But this scene criticism gave way to wholesale copping. Hey, this new minimal guitar pop was easier to play, and more favorable with girls. You could even sing it suckin' on a Dum-Dum. And this Dashboard Confessional tiger bop comes along looking like John Stamos' idea of Social Distortion repeating the embarrassment of TPR's 30 Degrees Everywhere? Calling this trend vanilla is an insult to good ice-cream and yogurt everywhere.
Now into these bands' wake jumps the Promise Ring, arms extended for that golden ring. First thing you notice visually is the absence of the two chubby older guys. "Make Me a Mixtape" and "Happiness Is All the Rage" are hard to swallow coming from guys who should have at least 10G's in their 401Ks. Yes, it was back to Wisconsin for the bassist, and a steady diet of nothing for the guitarist, who now pulls his weight with the artwork and website. Dig the new press kit with the two young ringers. Excuse the cynicism, but this is business and we're talking about a band making their big shot at stardom. Before hearing a note of Wood/Water, knowing the band's history and future at stake, and noting the enlistment of Britpop producer Stephen Street, one'd expect this disc to buzz and bounce like the Rentals or Menswear. Which still doesn't sound very good on paper, but you can't expect Street to magically whip them into the Smiths or Blur.
The humdrum result actually droops and drips as much as the boggy fauna in the artwork. Tracks one through three genre-jump like a band uncertain of which adult-indie trend to follow — Coldplay or the Flaming Lips or, um, REM's Monster? "Size of Your Life" lifts and weakly leaks the guitar from "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" as digital distortion strains to conceal Von Bohlen's toilet-paper tube larynx. It's a test, not a song. "Stop Playing Guitar" spews nonsensical lyrics: "If I had a dime for/ Every time I should stop playing guitar/ And put my nose in a book/ My head would be healthy/ My guitar would be dusty." Finish that cliché! Would you be rich? Could you barely buy some vended Wahoos? Accumulating dimes has nothing to do with head health. Granted, by putting his nose in a book, Von Bohlen would be protecting his delicate nasal cartiledge with pages, spine, and jacket. But unless his skull is a bank, this has nothing to do with dimes. "Suffer Never" follows, mimicking The Soft Bulletin's "Race for the Prize." It towers over the rest of the album, even if the Delgados, Mercury Rev, Lenola, Aspera, et al rip it off more convincingly.
From this point on, the disc sleepwalks through acoustic hangover ditties. Davey yawns his vocals. The band experiments with keyboards and percussion from beyond the realm of emo. Thematically, the lyrics cover themes of apathy and out-growing. It's an album from a guy questioning whether he wants to make albums anymore — the soundtrack to rubbing sleep from your eyes. So it slogs and slogs and slogs and slogs, until... oh my god, until "Say Goodbye Good."
Undoubtedly this will be the song everyone talks about. It was crafted for such a response. The track saddles everything that is lamentable about the Promise Ring with everything that is lamentable in overwrought rock albums. A choir and strings swell from typical non-clever wordplay and it's-serious-because-it's-slow plodding. The target is obviously songs in the ilk of Spiritualized, Blur's "Tender," Smog's "Knock Knock," and the epitome, "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Indeed. Mario Caldato Jr. mixes in misplaced electro-phase effects and Quincy McCrary. What, don't know Quincy? He sang back-up for Lionel Richie and Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Smooth soul wails from Q, like an elevator version of Clare Torry on "The Great Gig in the Sky," launching the song into pure parody. For such a supposed introspective record, session singers with no connection to the music betray the band's intent. At this point, Von Bohlen is M.I.A., an admission that something must be done to compensate for the complete lack of melody in his voice. Simply one of the most laughable and misguided songs of all step-up-to-the-big-boys releases, "Say Goodbye Good" immolates all positive new directions from the band. TPR even fail to recognize the finality and place of such Epic Songs on Big Albums and tack on another meaningless solo guitar tune afterwards.
From a commercial standpoint, Wood/Water misses the boat where another predictable pop album like Very Emergency could have hit big. Experimentation is admirable, but you can't put a Sizzler sirloin on a gold plate and call it a filet. What seems like an attempt to market records to a growing thirtysomething market —guys who groove to Starsailor while Swiffering the hardwood — sounds entirely miscast. The Promise Ring last sounded like themselves on Nothing Feels Good, and from here there's always idyllictronica.
Any time connoisseurs start grumbling that their favorite band has "sold out," chances are good that the object of their newfound derision has just made its best album. That's definitely the case with The Promise Ring's Wood/Water, a shady, insular pop record removed from the anthemic punk melodicism that the Milwaukee quartet rode to cult stardom. Recorded in England with one-time Morrissey collaborator Stephen Street (also known for his work with Blur and The Webb Brothers), Wood/Water finds The Promise Ring learning new modes of expression. In the case of "Stop Playing Guitar," the result is a slower, roomier version of the hooky guitar-rock the band has long performed. The song is basically a power ballad, albeit an unusually catchy one, with a swinging backbeat. For "Suffer Never," The Promise Ring and Street add a woozy compound of synthesizers and distorted guitar to an up-tempo acoustic base, lending a dimension of disconcertion to all the pretty positivism. "Become One Anything One Time"—which has a "la la" chorus that sounds almost litigiously like the bridge to The Mysteries Of Life's "Downhill"—returns again to the slow and quiet, stretching out in the same manner as the song's elastic slide guitar. Bandleader Davey Von Bohlen sings in a high, cracking voice, often returning to words like "heart" and "us." The album's centerpiece, the tender "Wake Up April," works from a muted drum machine and the light tinkling of an electric keyboard, as Von Bohlen rasps away about the potential for greatness: The band slowly moves from a small scale to a large one ("Wake up, America," begins the final verse), before shifting into a pacific sway for the coda. What may be irritating some of The Promise Ring's former fans is that Wood/Water purposefully leaves aside youthful aggression in favor of probing, thoughtful musicality. The group now has more in common with worldly indie-rockers like Guided By Voices, Superchunk, The Flaming Lips, Wheat, and The Delgados; the maturation process is like a bold rebuke to those who'd rather not grow up. But it would be easy and dull for The Promise Ring to keep cranking and bashing, instead of searching for a sound that better matches its moods. While the purists may complain that the new music lacks balls, it certainly has guts.
Noel MurrayA.V. Club

What is a band to do when everything they know/have ever been is turned topsy-turvy? Why, make the record nobody is expecting, of course. It's unclear whether or not it was Davey VonBohlen's illness, or something else entirely, that served as the catalyst for the Promise Ring's dramatic change in sound, but regardless of the reasons, there is nary a buzzing power-chord, lead-footed drum pattern or shouty sing-a-long to be found anywhere on Wood/Water. Much like Radiohead's OK Computer, Wood/Water is a bold venture into new sonic territory — underscored by the bands efforts to determine whether or not they have any right to be there in the first place. The results aren't quite as exemplary as Radiohead's watershed achievement, but the disc offers its share of unexpected thrills.
Under the tutelage of noted producer Stephen Street, the band has sculpted a series of musical mosaics like "Say Goodbye Good", an oddball American cousin of Blur's "Tender" — and ironically enough, the Beatles' "Let it Be". The song's swooning gospel choir accoutrements meld seamlessly with the band's downtrodden delivery and VonBohlen's high-pitched croon. The ringing guitars and playful harmonies of opening couplet "Size of Your Life" and "Stop Playing Guitar" come close to approximating the Promise Ring of old without compromising the group's new direction. Elsewhere, the band spreads its stylistic wings: "Suffer Never" sounds like an outtake from the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin, while the sparse acoustic guitar work of "Wake Up April" and the countrified ambience of "Half Year Sun" are heavily indebted to the spirit of early Wilco. However, for all the divergent stylistic ground Wood/Water covers, nothing seems forced, signaling that the changes in the group's sound have come on their own terms and are not simply change for change's sake.
It's not until you are able to wrap your head around the idea that, whether you like it or not, this isn't Very Emergency redux, that Wood/Water's true charms reveal themselves. The incandescent meditations of VonBohlen discarding his past — and perhaps not ironically, his future — on "My Life is at Home" are stunning, hinting at issues bubbling deep within his psyche. "Letters to the Far Reaches" and "Become One Anything One Time" are completely devoid of the band's trademark power-pop panache, resulting in tunes that are effective without being ostentatious. However, it seem inaccurate to claim that Wood/Water is TPR's crowning achievement, because in truth, it seems more like a new beginning — the beginning of a career miles removed from the crappy lights and cramped basements of their emo years. While it may very well send their longtime fans running for their copies of Nothing Feels Good, this is the coming of age record TPR simply had to make.
The best bands can deliver in the clutch — they possess the rare ability to craft the records that nobody could have possibly anticipated, and they're typically rewarded with longstanding admiration and all the perks that come with it. That the Promise Ring has achieved such a feat with Wood/Water not only proves their validity beyond the emo realm, but has all but cemented their reputation as one of the most consistently engaging bands of the post-punk era. It's not the record you've been expecting — but then again, this time out, that's the point exactly.
Jason Jackowiak

Milwaukee quintet The Promise Ring's journey to "Wood/Water" was an emotional white water. With three records critically acclaimed and successful by emo standards (1995's "30 Degrees Everywhere", 1997's rousing "Nothing Feels Good" and the solid 1999 follow-up "Very Emergency") things were going fine. Life was okey-dokey for TPR. They cashed decent cheques, they plied their then-unremarkable emo-core.
Post "Very Emergency" a new album was planned, with no anticipated departure from the formula that had brought them a smidgen of success. TPR were ticking over. Then BAM! - in April 2000, singer-songwriter Davey Von Bohlen was diagnosed with a brain tumour the size of a fist. As far as epiphanies go, a fist-sized tumour (that turned out to be benign) must really open up the mind's eye. "Wood/Water" is the monument at the end of it all, an inspiring burst of twinkling melancholy.
Recorded in England, produced by Stephen Street (knob-twiddler behind The Smiths and Blur's finest moments) and mixed by Beck and Beastie Boys associate Mario Caldato Jr, its a soulful, often brilliant collection of bosom-nuzzling pop songs. Think Grandaddy at their most gloriously meandering. Elliott Smith at his most Beatles. Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue at his most lost. And rejoice! It's a record inspired not only by a brush with the reaper, but a new found optimism for life. In the hands of the righteous, TPR's optimism would be sickening. However, in the hands of emo-kids, its great.
Opener '"Size Of Your Life"' (like Blur's 'Tender' but with humility) sees Von Bohlen setting the lyrical tone for the rest of this journey - a leg-up for our cynical hearts. "Yeah, I've been around before - ohhhh!" says Von Bohlen, refocusing his world-weary eyes. "This time I don't know what's in store". ''Suffer Never'' soars off like Idlewild and is equally up-and-at-'em: "It can be so much better/ Get out - lovely weather!".
They do strike a couple of bum notes along the way, mind. ''Say Goodbye Good'' is the Stereophonics doing ''Hey Jude''. ''My Life Is At Home'' is the weeny-wienered emo-standard. But these pithy grumbles pale into insignificance next to the Mercury Rev-fondling ''Letters To The Far Reaches'', ''Half Year Sun'' and the many oddities that buzz around ''Wood/Water''.
The overall diagnosis? Few records this year will get as close to you as ''Wood/Water''. This patient's in great health.
Imran Ahmed

Among the first things one notices about the Promise Ring's big breakthrough album on Anti-Records are the beautifully crisp, metallic photos of plants in a greenhouse shot by photographer Chris Strong. Strong is an amazing photographer who has worked with Owen, American Football, and Hey Mercedes, among others, and whose full, glossy work on Wood/Water delivers the message that the tone on this album is going to be different than previous Promise Ring works. Musically, the Promise Ring is charting new waters here. Die-hard fans may be stretched to their limits with Wood/Water, as it is nothing like previous releases, except for Davey von Bohlen's familiar lisp. So many effects are at work on this album, as influences from roots rock, emo, alternative pop, and multiple other genres are heard on the 12-song disc. A track like "Stop Playing Guitar" highlights von Bohlen's dangling storytelling and emphasizes the relaxed chorus. Surprisingly enough, other tunes sound quite similar to anything one might hear on alternative radio — not in some cheap, commercially viable manner, but it wouldn't be surprising if these songs chart well on college radio. Wood/Water features hooks aplenty, vocal manipulations, and quite a few mellow numbers to boot. Gone are the poppy, blissful, upbeat days of 30° Everywhere and Very Emergency. If the first few tracks don't convince someone of the change in the band's direction, just wait until the 11th song, "Say Goodbye Good," which comes along with a sequence of strings, keyboards, a vocal soloist, and a choir. While the band is surely quite comfortable with what it's doing at this point and while it's easy to appreciate the pop sensibilities, harmonies, and such, in the end the album comes up short. Though Wood/Water starts out lukewarm, there is hope that it will peak. Instead, it continues with a subdued feel, alienating die-hard fans and not doing anything daring enough to attract new ones.
Kurt Morris

The subtle, heartfelt results may not help them shed the "emo" tag, but should propel them beyond cult status.

The high point of the band's career.

The disc's bountiful electric piano, plaintive acoustic guitars and gentle vocals recall old AM radio fare like Cat Stevens or, more currently, an American version of Travis.
E! Online

They've never sounded so confident and comfortable, if maybe a bit tired.
Alternative Press

The gentle spectres of Sparklehorse and Elliott Smith are always near, but [Davey] Von Bohlen's mix of bleary wonder and self-deprecation is charming, and his grasp of melody sure.

A glossy, major-label-sounding record that’s dull, atmospheric, frustrating, and beautiful in pretty much equal amounts.
Nude As The News

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