Emotion in motion

April 19, 2002



Some in the emo underground are down on "Wood/Water," the eagerly awaited new disc from the Promise Ring.

After years with emo mainstays Jade Tree Records, the Milwaukee quartet has moved on to Epitaph, and the group has polished its sound considerably with producer Stephen Street, best known for his work with the Smiths and Blur. The knock is that the band has turned its back on the genre it helped originate via a prolific legacy of eight albums and EPs, as well as the earlier recordings by its groundbreaking predecessor, Cap'n Jazz.

But how can any group remain true to a genre when its primary requirement isn't sonic, but music that is "ultra-emotional"? And while some of the old punk propulsion may be missing, by any measure of the emotion invested in it, "Wood/Water" is the group's strongest effort yet because it almost never came to be.

Davey von Bohlen, the band's primary singer, lyricist, and auteur, was plagued by headaches for two years before doctors diagnosed a brain tumor. They operated, but part of his skull became infected, so he had to have two more surgeries to have some of the bone removed and replaced with a metal plate. The experience left him and his bandmates questioning why they do what they do, and returning to it with a new sense of purpose.

"After that whole year with Davey's surgery, everything came under question," says guitarist Jason Gnewikow. "Even once we got past that and started writing, it was like, 'Oh, we suck. We need to hang it up!' But that was good for us. It was impetus for us to work hard and figure out what we were doing. We had an area where things were going really well, but then people get comfortable and go one autopilot and the music was kind of suffering because of that. We could have easily not been a band anymore."

"I think if there wasn't any burning desire to be doing it, the last two years would have been the perfect time to get out," von Bohlen adds. "The band had pretty much come to a dead halt. That's why this record has changed so much--it started without anybody really noticing. Because of my health, we hadn't toured, and we didn't really play for a long time. It kind of came to this point where it was like, 'We could never do this again and it wouldn't feel that strange.' We were all pretty much aware that when we picked it up again, we'd be starting fresh."

The desire for rebirth manifested itself in the decision to change labels, and to work with Street. "We wanted to spend time recording and have a budget large enough to actually sit down and concentrate," von Bohlen says. "For where our musical tastes lie, he was a pretty obvious choice. We wanted to work with somebody who was thinking outside the box, and those Blur records are definitely outside the box. American rock is filled with big productions; the difference between Aerosmith and Blink-182 to me is minimal because the production is very similar. That's not what's going on overseas, and we thought this record would be more geared to that."

"For me, the whole idea of being in a band--especially our band--is constantly learning new things," Gnewikow adds. "So when you get to work with someone who's been around a long time, it's great because you get to figure more things out."

Von Bohlen says that his health scare didn't really affect the way he writes or the band records. "Nothing is noticeably different to me--if I've changed, I've been sitting here with myself too long to really notice," he says, laughing. "But things have changed in terms of instead of us having an idea, picking up our guitars at rehearsal and going, 'This is the idea, let's do it,' we worked more with Pro-Tools and computers. Now, it's, 'Here's the idea, now we can sit down separately and not have to work together as much.'

"It totally changes things. I know there are cons to it, but once we kind of felt it and got to that place where we were like, 'OK, I think we're making a record now instead of just writing songs,' then it was lickety-split and it all came together really quickly. Song after song came out. There's not a lot of awareness, at least with me. It's like all of the sudden, you just have an album."

And a fine one it is. All that remains is to see whether "Wood/Water" connects with a broader audience, a la fellow travelers Jimmy Eat World, or remains a secret to an underground scene that will grouse that the band was better back in the day.

"It's definitely a pregnant moment for us," Gnewikow says. "I hope that it will be a more extreme connection, if it does connect with people. For me, it's the most powerful record that we've ever made. I think the people who like it will have a strong reaction to it. I hope it won't just be something that kind of hangs out there and then goes away."

The Promise Ring will play a free acoustic in-store set at Tower Records in Chicago, 2301 N. Clark, at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The group will also return to perform at the Empty Bottle on May 17.

'The Last Waltz' still overrated and pretentious

'I went to see that movie the other night, 'The Last Waltz,' and you sit through something like that in 1982, and you really see why New Wave was necessary," rock critic Lester Bangs told me two weeks before his death in the spring of '82. "There they are, so smugly thinking that they're brilliant musicians, just because this guy [Robbie Robertson] can play a solo for 10 minutes that's just scales! It's really pompous."

At the time, I felt vindicated: I'd seen the film as a high school senior, and I thought it was a monumental snooze. Since then, I've sat through Martin Scorsese's endless 1978 documentary about the Band's final concert two more times, and I still couldn't agree with Lester more. In fact, it might be the most overrated rock film ever.

The Last Waltz is re-opening on the big screen this week with a remastered soundtrack in honor of its 25th anniversary. (It's also available on DVD with even more performance footage added, and there's a companion four-CD box set as well.) But the movie hasn't gotten any less pretentious with the passage of time. Actually, it's harder than ever to watch Robertson thinking he's God's gift to the guitar, given the painful revelations of an ego run amok in Levon Helm's autobiography, to say nothing of Robertson's exceedingly mediocre solo career or his recent self-serving keynote address at the South By Southwest Music & Media Conference.

Yes, the movie is beautifully shot (credit cinematographers Michael Chapman, Michael Watkins and Vilmos Zsigmond). And sure, Scorsese elicits some frank and funny commentary during the interview segments (he was about to enter his 18-month "lost weekend" hanging out with Robertson).

But the handful of good performances (Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield) are outnumbered and overpowered by the awful ones (Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond). And for anyone who cares about the gusto of great rock 'n' roll, the most fun comes from waiting to spy the evidence of backstage partying on Neil Young's nostrils, and cheering for these goobers to get on with it and break up already.

Ever wonder why punk happened? Watch this film again, if you can manage to stay awake.