Promise Keepers

Recovering from a badly produced debut, the Promise Ring finally delivers the goods

It's an unusual story. A reputable hard-core label signs a pop band recommended by another band. The pop band tours, releases a shittily produced LP and becomes the darling of the American indie scene. So the band goes to a better studio with a better producer. The label releases the band's sugar-pop album with songs about Jesus and American nostalgia. The label's sales grow exponentially, and the label goes on an all-out publicity binge and decides to film a video from the LP to play on MTV and other outlets.

It sounds like a depressing sell-out scenario until you consider the players involved: Jade Tree Records released Nothing Feels Good, the Promise Ring's sophomore album, several weeks ago.

The band was formed by guitarist/vocalist Davey vonBohlen (formerly of emo-core giants Cap'n Jazz), guitarist Jason Gnewikow, bassist Scott Beschta and drummer Daniel Didier. After Revelation Records artist Texas Is the Reason recommended the band to Jade Tree, the label put out 30i Everywhere, the band's first LP. 30i had the potential to be a masterpiece, but sounded intentionally fuzzy and lo-fi. The band's stunning interlocked melodies and hushed charm are apparent despite the lack of gloss, but until the release of Nothing Feels Good, the only true Promise Ring experience could be had at the shows.

Nothing Feels Good does more than one-up 30i's production. This is the Promise Ring's defining moment. The recording brims with intricately gorgeous pop songs about Delaware, interstates, Chevys, phone booths outside Texaco stations, parks and pools in Indianapolis, pink chimneys in Maine, forget-me-nots and marigolds, Billy Ocean, Jesus fishing for men in Bethlehem--you get the picture. Soft stuff, but NFG transcends any hard-core/masculinity trips by virtue of its dynamics--this is pop music, but it's not The Softies.

The high points of the album--the title track, a wistfully strummed melody with a chorus that lullabies "And I don't know God/And I don't know anything/And I don't know God/And I don't know if anything at all will be all right"; "Make Me a Chevy," which consists of intricately weaved guitar play between Jason and Davey over a driving rhythm section that builds from a controlled orthodox pop tune to a manic outburst; "Why Did We Ever Meet" could be the best teeny-bop song in indie rock since Sleater-Kinney's "Little Babies"; and "A Broken Tenor" features a trampling bass line and explosive guitars that make sparks go off in your head like when you bite into a wintergreen Certs.

Since recording NFG, Beschta left the band and was replaced by Tim Burton (not the Batman director), who used to be in None Left Standing with Gnewikow. This hasn't slowed the guys, though. In September, they took off on a 10-week tour that lands them in Mesa later this month. Revolver had a chance to ring up Gnewikow while the band was holed up at Jade Tree's offices in Delaware. Here's the conversation:

Revolver: Tell me about recording Nothing Feels Good--you recorded at Easley Studios [a favorite of Pavement, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Sonic Youth] with J. Robbins [of DC's Jawbox] producing. How did that compare with recording 30i Everywhere?

Jason Gnewikow: It was like night and day (laughs). Easley was amazing. Everybody there is so nice and totally mellow. Doug Easley's recorded, like, huge bands, but doesn't act like it at all; whereas at Idful [where 30i was recorded] working with Casey [Rice], who I guess has done some big bands, too, but it seems like everybody in Chicago's got a really big attitude or ego, like they're better than everybody if they've done something cool; that's sort of the way we got treated there. It wasn't too much fun, we got rushed in and rushed out, and no one really seemed to care about making it good.

R: The production on this album blows the other one away.
JG: Yeah, I've listened to 30i like twice since we recorded it because I hated it so much. They just really didn't care, we'd go in and do a take and they'd be, like, "Oh, that's fine. You're a punk band. It's cool, that's what you're supposed to sound like." But it's not, y'know. After we recorded that, everyone was like, "Wow, your record doesn't sound anything like you do live." And it's like, "That's true, it sounds like shit" (laughs).

When we recorded the new record, J. totally put the screws to us. It was the exact opposite. We'd be like, "Well, that's good enough," and he'd be like, "Nope, get back in there." So it was awesome.

R: I know you're not the lyric guy, but can you fill me in somewhat on all the geographic references, Chevys and Texacos and all that? American nostalgia seems to be your biggest muse besides romance. That's a little unusual for a young band like yourselves. And the Jesus stuff, there are moments on the record that seem contemplative about religion. Is that an intended undertone?

JG: Like you said, I don't write the lyrics, it's completely and utterly Davey. He's into all that nostalgic stuff, John Steinbeck and Norman Rockwell.

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