With their reunion coming up,, now's as good a time as any to check out the Promise Ring. For those just joining in, the best place to start with TPR is Nothing Feels Good, the group's seminal second album. 30° Everywhere is too muddled. Very Emergency is too poppy. Wood/Water sounds like a totally different band. I love all of these records, but if you want the people's champion, go for Nothing Feels Good. That's the one that's catchy, rocking and heartfelt in equal measures.
Formed in Milwaukee, Wis. in 1995, the Promise Ring hails from a generation when bands could be labeled as emo despite sounding nothing alike. Nothing Feels Good is just as important a record as Diary, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy or Hello Bastards, even though those records have little in common. If anything TPR is stylistically more in keeping with '90s indie rock bands like Archers of Loaf, Superchunk and Sebadoh.
Actually, the Promise Ring might be the perfect bridge between those two styles. '90s indie rock bands wrote really good, lo-fi rock songs that weren't actually about anything (Ever wonder why Archers of Loaf didn't bother broadcasting their lyrics?). Emo bands, though, they mean everything. Chief lyricist Davey von Bohlen struck a balance between these two ideologies. While songs like "Perfect Lines" and "Nothing Feels Good" certainly pack some emotional weight ("I don't know God / I don't know anyone / or if anything will be alright", for example), von Bohlen would never let direct storytelling get in the way of a good rhyme scheme. Of course, he can certainly let his imagery do the lifting for him too. Consider the lone line that guides "Red & Blue Jeans": "Nothing feels good like you in red and blue jeans and your white and night things." It can be read as sensual, longing, romantic, desperate; it can be all these things because of what it implies.
One of the slights against emo is that it can be whiny. While von Bohlen's voice isn't always the prettiest in the bunch, the guy still knows how to write a hook. So for all the sadsackery associated with the genre, Nothing Feels Good is still valid as a party record. Go put on "Why Did We Ever Meet." The guitars are insistent. The bass bounces. The drums drive the song. And that chorus, man, is just explodes with jubilance. von Bohlen loves bouncing words off each other, but he still knows when to cut back and let "bop bop badada" and "doot doot doodoodoo" carry the song along. Plus there's a guitar solo! This is what a perfect pop song should sound like. And this album has 10 more songs like that (For those keeping count, "How Nothing Feels" is just an interlude).
Really, though, Nothing Feels Good is just the beginning. It's the crowd pleaser. Between the Promise Ring, Maritime and Vermont, von Bohlen has 10 records of indie/emo tunes ready to roll (In addition to various EPs 'n' splits. I tend to leave out von Bohlen's other band, Cap'N Jazz, because it doesn't have much of his songwriting voice in there. But the Jazz also rules, so go buy Analphabetapolothology). Nothing Feels Good is an incredible album, but there's more out there. Hurry up before the Promise Ring breaks up again.