The Promise Ring – Wood/Water (Anti)

Band moves to wilderness, makes weird record. Unfortunately, such a scenario doesn’t sound all that original these days what with home recording equipment becoming cheaper and of higher fidelity. Nevertheless, the Promise Ring, those chirpy poster boys of Midwest emo-pop, having pulled through brain tumors and Spin interviews, retreated to England with Smiths/Blur producer Stephen Street and made a record unlike any they’ve previously done. The result, Wood/Water, is altogether… wholesome. It’s warm and soft and greatly unlike their last full-length, 1999’s Very Emergency. Gone is the pop sheen. Present is a newly found exploration into the textures of the instruments.

Singer Davey Von Bohlen continues to grow his limited vocal range. In the context of this new batch of laid-back songs, Davey’s voice feels comfortable. Take “Suffer Never” where Davey’s voice climbs up almost to falsetto and crawls down to raspy notes but remains well-planted among the keyboards, guitars and fuzzy bass — it’s something he’s never felt confident enough to try before. Likewise, “Stop Playing Guitar” is the direct antithesis of much of the hyperactive guitar-led rave-ups the band once favored. A frank autobiographical viewpoint leads the lyrics of regret and is something that the nonsensical word-playing Davey of Nothing Feels Good wasn’t capable of. “Get On The Floor,” despite being perhaps the catchiest song here, still remains restrained and quietly confident. The theme of regret rears its head again: “in a second life, I’d never become a singer.” Strange coming from someone who’s singing the best of his career.

Depending on the way you look at it, Wood/Water is either the impressive lateral leap towards serious band territory that the Ring intends or it’s really horizontal progress. “Serious” rock music tends to make me feel like I’m watching an episode of the “comedy” Dharma and Greg — slightly queasy, unsure of how the players misunderstood their assigned genre. On the other hand, one can tell Wood/Water is the sort of achievement that is immensely fulfilling for its creators. And that is justification enough for its existence.