splendid > reviews > 4/30/2002
The Promise Ring
The Promise Ring
Foreign Leisure/Anti

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Size of Your Life"

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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.



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