April 19, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
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
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.
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.