Fellowship of the Ring

Rebounding from health scares, the Promise Ring sheds its emo skin for a Brit-pop sheen

The other attraction? "The money that Epitaph got from Offspring records," Didier says with no hesitation. "We just wanted, with Davey's surgery and the whole refocus of what we wanted, to just not play around and let's just do what makes us happy, and what would make us happy is to make the record we want to make, like Wood/Water.

"Wood/Water is the record we wanted to make; there's nothing in that record that we don't want. It was like, let's get a recording budget that we can record the record we want to make on, let's try to get Stephen Street or some other producer to do it. We just wanted to make ourselves happy."

The band got what it wanted, a recording budget sufficient to send them to the English countryside to record with Stephen Street, legendary producer of the Smiths and Morrissey, as well as Blur, the Cranberries, and many other Brit-rockers. The band's honest solicitations for a large budget earned it detractors amongst purists who didn't want to see the Promise Ring jump ship from Jade Tree, especially to the notoriously finance-minded Epitaph. Despite philosophical differences about the cookie-cutter punk rock Epitaph churns out, the band makes no apologies.

The Promise Ring: On a new label, with a new sound, and a new commitment to satisfy themselves.
Steven Carty
The Promise Ring: On a new label, with a new sound, and a new commitment to satisfy themselves.

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"If I like a band and I like their music, I could really care less if Bill Gates personally paid for that band's record," Didier says. "I don't care. That doesn't matter. The money they gave us to record this record probably came from the Offspring; that's fine. I really don't care. The problem is that a lot of people have issues with that, like 'that sucks you changed labels, that's so stupid, what were you thinking?' and it's so stupid. I don't care who paid for your college, I don't care where you work, give us a fucking break. Just let us do what we want to do. You're obviously not a fan of the music, you're a fan of something else, and we're not to code, apparently. Which is fine. Anti was totally appealing to us that way, not to be associated with some sort of scene, and to do what we wanted."

All vitriol aside, Wood/Water is a very accomplished, textured album of melancholic melodica, albeit sober in comparison to the band's previous kinetic work on Very Emergency. Street's production gives the album a Brit-rock shoegazer patina, and the one track not recorded by Street, "Say Goodbye Good," is an ambitious layered piece with strings and a gospel choir. The Promise Ring has successfully shed its old skin.

The shakeup caused by von Bohlen's illness gave the band a fresh perspective on songwriting, as did the addition of the Pro Tools digital recording program to the band's arsenal. "We spent every day in the studio last summer just working the songs out; we spent a lot of time on these songs," Didier says. "With the Pro Tools rig, we could go at any point in the day and just start adding stuff and playing with songs and seeing how they fit and seeing how they react to the other sounds. We wanted experimentation, we wanted to develop and find different textures that we could add.

"There weren't really any parameters, it was mainly just letting the songs speak for themselves. Like for 'Say Goodbye Good,' let's put a choir on there because if there wasn't, the song would be lacking. Or let's totally distort Davey's vocals on 'Size of Your Life' because if you didn't, the song would lack. We let the songs tell us what to do with them. Then when we went over to England, same thing with Stephen. He's great at finding pieces for songs, he has a great ear for that. When he listens to a song, he knows what's missing, so it's very easy for him to be like, 'Let's try to develop something in this part of the song.'"

Initially, the band wasn't sure that it could afford Street's services, even with an Offspring-funded budget. They expected to split the duties between Street and Beastie Boys cohort Mario Caldato Jr. "Say Goodbye Good" was recorded with Caldato before the band flew to England, and they planned to record any remaining material upon their return to the States. "When we went to England, the songs just kind of were there," Didier says. "The budget wasn't a problem; we overreacted about the money situation before we actually needed to."

The album's opener, "Size of Your Life," immediately puts the Promise Ring's previous work out of mind. The distortion leaves von Bohlen's voice unrecognizable, and the fuzzed jangle recalls Blur more than any emo outfits, while "Suffer Never" evokes the Stone Roses, circa '91. "Stop Playing Guitar" is similar to earlier work like "Why Did Ever We Meet," with weepy guitars and a multitude of "yeah" bridgework. Von Bohlen's lyrics on the song, written before his diagnosis, nearly predict his cranial condition: "So if I had a dime for every time I should've stopped playing guitar and put my nose in a book/Then my head would be healthy, my guitar would be dusty, and that might just save me from a bunch of bad songs." This is the track you'll likely hear on the radio, and its video's final edit was recently completed.

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