Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Spectrum Culture Feature: Rediscover: The Promise Ring - Nothing Feels Good

For all the in-depth regional and demographical statistics, one of the biggest takeaways from Pitchfork’s recent People’s Poll was simply the opportunity it afforded to explore individual writers’ favorite modern albums. It’s not so surprising that critics still hold the first and only Avalanches record dear, or still get considerable mileage out of the Dismemberment Plan catalog. After all, these are the kinds of bands that credibility is built upon: unique, impossibly hip and eternally modern sounding artists with impeccable track records and wide-ranging influence.

What was less expected was the number of mentions for artists of a more marginalized nature, namely that of the “emo” variety. I don’t need to go back and listen to most of it to confirm that a lot of it sucks and that high school kids have bad taste in music. But what the poll itself further confirmed is that the best of any genre should still render fans helpless to discard music that one needn’t be embarrassed by in the first place. Because you know what? Diary still rules and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy still makes me want to break things and Mic City Sons still makes me feel like love is something worth expending a considerable amount of energy pursuing. And then there’s Nothing Feels Good, the second album from the once quite popular but now mostly ignored Milwaukee band the Promise Ring, which popped up on more People’s Lists that I perused than any other record of its kind. If we measure passion by the amount of times one has listened to an album, then Nothing Feels Good is one of my favorite albums of all time.

What’s ironic is that the Promise Ring did more to influence the unfortunate aspects of emo–including the lasting connotations around the actual term, which I think people sometimes forget is simply an abbreviation of “emotional,” like sad music which taps into human feeling is solely the province of dudes with acoustic guitars–than most any other band. It wasn’t long before these guys became a parody of themselves, unconsciously spawning a new generation of bands with half the songwriting abilities and none of the personality. But Nothing Feels Good? Oh man, that album title alone, right? Obviously this is the alpha and omega of emo records before you even hear a single note played. But that first note, the blaring chords which open “Is This Thing On?”, is one of the most triumphant moments the genre has ever given us. Because with all due respect to “Web In Front” and “Summer Babe” and “Pillars,” “Is This Thing On?” must be the most indelible opener on any '90s indie rock record–or at the very least the most undeniably and instantaneously catchy. I mean, this is simply a master class in pop songwriting: the bass riff, the cyclical verse melody, the pre-chorus turn around, the hook (the hook!), the unharmonious vocal harmonies. It’s structured in a fashion that could literally play out forever, but more accurately it’s just an interlocking series of brilliant touches packaged into the tightest three minutes of music I’ve heard. It sets the bar impossibly high on a record with no shortage of highlights, but to the band’s credit they never attempt to re-write the song, instead careening head first through 11 equally ingratiating, damn-near inspiring songs in less than 35 minutes.

It says something about the quality of these songs that “Why Did We Ever Meet,” probably the simplest track here, with one of the most ridiculous wordless hooks I know, was the hit single. This is a song which features the lyrics, “Why care about the weather/ It only ends/ It only ends in darkness,” delivered in an almost embarrassingly naïve and infectious display of adolescent vigor. And then a track later frontman Davey von Bohlen is comparing a girl to a car (“Make Me a Chevy”) over ringing, wide-open chords, before pulling back with a track called “How Nothing Feels,” one minute of plaintive, barely-there piano and acoustic strums shrouded in tape hiss. You see, for the Promise Ring, even nothing feels like something, and this album is, if nothing else, all feeling.

The title track is just as heartfelt as one would imagine, but somehow not at all cloying, with lyrics so endearing it makes me yearn for a return to the dog days of high school just so I can mark up a notebook with lines like: “And I don’t know God/ And I don’t know anyone/ And I don’t know if anything at all will be all right.” And in an alternate universe where holiday music is actually worthwhile, “B is for Bethlehem” would be the national anthem for the Christmas season. Barring that ever coming to fruition, it’ll at least be played at my wedding, where dozens of drunk friends can sloppily belt in unison, “It’s hours to be where ‘B’ is for Bethlehem/ Where Jesus was a fisherman/ I know he starts and finishes men but I don’t know why/ Jesus was a fisherman/ Fishing men from the devil’s hands,” like a religious revival in celebration of me finally surrendering to the ultimate display of public emotion, marriage. And I can rest easy knowing this moment will someday transpire because Nothing Feels Good will survive far longer than it’ll take me to actually grow up, despite the fact that the last song on the record is inevitably called “Forget Me.” Sorry guys, no can do. [SC]

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