Some call it emo

Oct 27, 1999 at 12:00 am

Nobody likes labels, especially when they get stuck with one that they can’t shake. Way back when, somebody came up with a tag called "emo." The details are shaky at best, but for what it’s worth, it’s short for emotion and is generically applied to bands who came out of the U.S. hardcore punk scene but slowed down their tempo to sing about their feelings. That out of the way, we can talk about Milwaukee’s the Promise Ring who, for better or worse, are the current emo poster children.

Formed in 1995, the four-piece followed the time tested approach for indie-punk bands. It released a slew of 7-inchers, toured constantly playing anywhere that had electrical outlets and, by word of mouth, amassed a modest but rabid fan base. Most of the band’s early material, including its first full-length, 30 Degrees Everywhere, was plagued with dodgy recording quality. Still, Promise Ring’s live show and the music behind the murk showed that the band had some serious potential.

That potential finally got to shine through on the 1997 album, Nothing Feels Good. The critics could finally get what the fans had known all along: that cleverly arranged power chords and a less-than-linear look at everyday life could still be enthralling.

Now the Promise Ring has plenty to live up to. Hype or hope, there’s a lot riding on the little band that could. Very Emergency starts with all the same ingredients. J. Robbins (ex-Jawbox) returns to produce; Davey von Bohlen can still write lyrics that perplex as much as they amuse and the band still sees itself as a work in progress.

What has changed is their fear of pop sensibilities. They no longer seem to feel the need to tweak things just enough not to be straight. The hooks have turned to sugar and the band seems more at peace with its small place in the world.

The album starts with "Happiness is All the Rage" – and the band believes it. The songs fit more in the power-pop tradition, upbeat and radio-friendly. Even on such break-up songs as "All of My Everythings," von Bohlon doesn’t seem too hurt.

Wordplay and an earnest approach still make the album endearing, but for those who first embraced the band for its unique take on everyman rock, Very Emergency’s play-it-straight approach may disappoint.

If you take a hint from "Things Just Getting Good," the Promise Ring still isn’t satisfied, but is still promising and is still worth a listen.