Tragedy has been a constant companion of the Promise Ring through the past couple of years. In early 1998, while on tour, the band's van flipped over on an icy road and left all its members hospitalized; guitarist Jason Gnewikow spent three weeks in a hospital room with a broken collarbone, among other serious injuries. More recently, lead singer and guitarist Davey vonBohlen underwent brain surgery to remove a large but thankfully benign tumor from his brain. (Though the band was forced to cancel a European tour, vonBohlen is expected to recover fully.)
Listeners who've only experienced the first Promise Ring LP, the maudlin 33° Everywhere, might expect these incidents to be reflected in their music, but anyone tracing the band's discography since then knows that it's quite the opposite. In recent years, the Promise Ring has become nothing short of rapturous.
The follow-up to 33°, Nothing Feels Good, was brimming with Norman Rockwell-ish portraits of classic '50s Americana -- Chevys, blue jeans, the pink chimneys of Maine. Left behind were the lackluster production values, the gut-wrenching yearning (such as "A Picture Postcard": "Don't forget to kiss me/If you're really going to leave./Couldn't you take the second bus home?"), and the general emo-ness 33° was drenched in.
With its third full-length, last year's Very Emergency, the Promise Ring took the ebullient route miles farther. Opening with the self-explanatory "Happiness Is All the Rage," Very Emergency was an indie-bubblegum cheer fest, something that startled the band's typically arms-crossed audience. This was freakin' dance music, and though many original fans were lost by the lack of morose dirges, the fact is that the Promise Ring is much better at being a pop-infatuated dance band than it is as shoe-gazing weepers. The songs on Very Emergency ricocheted exuberantly, forcing endearing grins onto the faces of those willing to ignore expectations of what the band should sound like. We're sorry, kids, these guys are approaching middle age, and emo is kiddy territory (can somebody please tell that to Sunny Day Real Estate?).
Now, the Promise Ring offers up a new EP to sate the army of P-Ring enthusiasts loitering about indie-rock clubs nationwide. Dubbed Electric Pink, the disc's title track furthers the band's recent tendency toward androgyny -- the Boys + Girls EP featured a song called "Best Looking Boys" -- and, to set the record straight (if you haven't heard this already), only one member, Gnewikow, is not a breeder. All told, the theme of the song is a far cry from Boys + Girls' dismissive opener, "Tell Everyone We're Dead."
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The new EP is not a departure, but rather the logical successor to Very Emergency. The Promise Ring has found its calling in pop simplicity -- the childish enthusiasm of handclaps, the atavistic pleasures of echoed background refrains, ingenuous one-note melodies that span octaves, and compact, expressive poetics masked by sophomoric naiveté.
The second track on the new EP, "Strictly Television," harks back to the retro-Americana of Nothing Feels Good -- not "Kill Your Television" cynically, but a celebration of status quo habitualness and iconolatry. Similarly, "American Girl" (incidentally, the "prequel" to "American Girl [version 02]" can be found on Boys + Girls) is a gently strummed acoustic paean to no girl in particular, just the conceptual materialization of that same "Little Pink Houses" American dream.
Showing its age despite the bubblegum content of its recent records, the band's "Make Me a Mix Tape" is as innocent as an outpouring of affection can be, with the signature Promise Ring pauses, rhythmic explosions and vonBohlen's lyrical playfulness ("Make me a mix tape/Don't leave out Hüsker Dü/Put something on that the Cars did in 1982/Put on Duran Duran, Duran Duran there too/Make me a mix tape that brings me closer to you.").
The Promise Ring will never approach jock/cock rock, so if you're looking for American Bad Asses, this ain't for you. But rest assured this is no goddamned emo band, either.