The Promise Ring
Debating and ranking the albums of Milwaukee’s finest.
Welcome to the first of many discussions with the Emo Council.
The council is a group of bands, writers, music industry executives, regular folks and even parents all passionate about the genre that came together to debate once and for all, the best bands, albums and songs of the emo era. All council members were actively involved in the scene or a fan for each debate and/or topic.
Every member sends in his or her thoughts and rankings of the topic at hand. Those rankings are tallied up and presented as the Emo Council’s final list along with quotes related generally or to specific albums. All of the council’s quotes are posted anonymously.
If you have any questions about the council and why we’re here, read this.
This week’s question:
What is the best release by The Promise Ring?
Years Active: 1995–2002, 2005, 2011–2012
Band Members: Dan Didier — Drums, Davey von Bohlen — Guitar/Vocals, Jason Gnewikow — Guitar, Scott Schoenbeck — Bass
Past Members: Tim Burton, Scott Beschta, Ryan Weber
30° Everywhere (September 9, 1996) Jade Tree Records
The Horse Latitudes (February 10, 1997) Jade Tree Records
Nothing Feels Good (October 14, 1997) Jade Tree Records
Boys + Girls (October 27, 1998) Jade Tree Records
Very Emergency (September 28, 1999) Jade Tree Records
Electric Pink (May 16, 2000) Jade Tree Records
Wood/Water (April 23, 2002) ANTI Records
the Emo Council
I have spent most of the past 13 years thinking about this question in particular.
I have to start out by saying that I’m a huge fan of The Promise Ring, but at first, I was not. At all. An old bandmate of mine would play “Very Emergency “all of the time, and I just couldn’t get past that voice. It took several years, a Jade Tree comp, “A Praise Chorus” and a polished but poorly-reviewed last album for me to finally get it.
I hope this doesn’t get me ejected from the council but I’ve never been a huge Promise Ring fan.
One good anecdote though. I dated a girl when I was in college and for some reason after we had broken up she came up to visit me and left her phone charger in my room. She really wanted it back and it took me forever to get it to her, flash forward to when I got a promo for “Electric Pink.” I sent it to her with a sweet note and got the CD back in the mail a few years better, broken into a hundred pieces with a note that said “never talk to me again.” I probably did some other stuff to deserve that but true to her word, we never spoke again. That’s what that album always makes me think of. On second thought, that story is pretty fucking emo. I should get some kind of cabinet position.
Nothing Feels Good has to be #1, this put them on map, the imagery of the album is iconic of the era and I do still feel it could stand up against records today.
I feel like I should underline my affinity for “Nothing Feels Good”. It is an incredible record. It’s one of the most important albums this genre has ever created. It arguably invented a genre. It inarguably invented a visual aesthetic for this community. It was poetic but, at points, also extremely lucid and insightful. It said everything, even when it said nothing. It was pretty much all I wanted out of a guitar-driven band in the late 1990s. The one thing it’s not, though — almost 20 years later — is my favorite Promise Ring album. It’s a classic album, sure. It’s just not the one I reach for most often.
Nothing Feels Good is the record I return to consistently, whenever I want to need a quick Promise Ring fix.
Nothing Feels Good is a stone-cold classic…It literally wrote the book on emo.
I think it’s one of those albums where it’s the “classic” album for a reason. Part of the reason I’d pick In Utero over Nevermind for example, is after all these years of listening I start to get a little sensitive to Nevermind’s overproduction and hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blaring out of any place that will play rock music. But even at emo’s height of popularity, Nothing Feels Good still feels like this little perfect album that’s a really personal discovery for anyone who hears it. It’s still the one I always reach for first when I want to hear The Promise Ring, and I don’t wanna drop the “concept album” title on it, but the recurring themes make it feel like such a complete thing. I’m a huge sucker for things like the lyric “nothing feels good” being on “Red & Blue Jeans,” and then “How Nothing Feels,” and then finally the song “Nothing Feels Good” (which is my favorite The Promise Ring song). It’s probably worth adding that I was too young to experience The Promise Ring in the ‘90s, and I got all of their albums at once, around 2004 or 2005. I went into it without any preconceived notions, and those Nothing Feels Good songs just were and remain my favorite ones.
Nothing Feels Good — a good recording and performance on tape. great energy and songs that hit the spot for me at the time.
30 Degrees Everywhere — crappy recording and performances, but i agree with some on the list that’s what made it endearing. A Picture Postcard brings back a ton of emo crush memories.
I think it’s funny that my favorite TPR album is also the most awfully produced one, but that’s just it: 30º pretty much perfectly captured the band I met in 1995. I remember a story they told me about recording this album and how frustrating it was that Casey Rice didn’t demand anything from their performances — he would literally say, “Yeah, that’s good enough. Whatever, it’s punk rock.” They didn’t feel like they were just “punk rock,” even back then, so they felt like that was a diss. But those early Promise Ring shows were totally punk to me. And they were glorious. So I’m actually super happy this record sounds the way it does. It’s a perfect record of my memory of the band at that time.
30 Degrees Everywhere shouldn’t be anyone’s favorite Promise Ring album. It sounds like shit, it’s not as fully formed as Nothing Feels Good, and it’s not as directly poppy as the stuff that came in the back half of the band’s career. And that is exactly why it’s the band’s best album. No one would want an album to sound like this. The guitars are clunky, the drums are thin yet bottom heavy, and Davey’s vocals are lost in the middle of it all. But the fact that the songs are strong enough to supersede all these faults make it unlike anything else (aside from maybe Hot Water Music’s Forever And Counting). There’s not a bad song on this record, but it takes commitment to not dismiss them all outright. It’s a record that captures a time and a place, one where second-wave emo was emerging but no one knew what the fuck it was. If they did, 30 Degrees would certainly sound better but also lose all of its importance. The beauty of it stems from it coming from a place where clean production wasn’t a given, and it constantly succeeds in spite of itself.
While all of The Promise Ring’s records have their own merits, nothing is quite as genuine — or as beautifully flawed — as 30 Degrees Everywhere.
The songwriting is strong and it was clearly leading to something bigger, but I just can’t connect with it at all. I’m the kind of sucker who almost invariably prefers punk/emo bands once they start getting decent production. 30 Degrees makes me think of the 2011 records from bands like Modern Baseball, You Blew It!, Into It. Over It., etc. — I have the utmost respect for the kids who heard those and knew there was something special, but I just couldn’t get past the amateurism of it. I’m not a guy who believes in the fallacy that a shitty, raw first-take recording is more “honest” or “pure” or “better.” The Promise Ring ain’t Rites of Spring, y’know? Let Davey breathe!
At times it’s unquestionable that the songwriting on Wood/Water is miles ahead of 30° Everywhere. But the moments on 30° where you hear this band with horrible recording quality who sound like they haven’t totally figured things out yet, and every now and then coming out with these powerful songs — those moments hit me harder than even my favorite Wood/Water songs. It’s beautifully flawed.
Let’s start with Very Emergency: I remember reading a positive All Music Guide review which referred to this record as “bad pop songs” and that stuck with me. It’s all midtempo, C-tuning jangle and cloying lyrics and none of the energy or inventiveness of their earlier or later work. It’s a very strange outlier right in the middle of their catalog, and they could’ve conceivably made that kind of record to this very day had life not interrupted for Davey. I mean, at the time, I had crushes on so many real-deal southern girls, so the fact that a motherfucking The Promise Ring song called “The Deep South” couldn’t connect is inexcusable.
I find myself listening to Very Emergency less and less. Maybe it’s too over the top or such a departure for me from Nothing Feels Good. 30 Degrees Everywhere seems to resonate more with me than Very Emergency.
Very Emergency is super low on the list for me mostly because I thought it lacked a lot of the dynamics that made TPR songs so memorable. It is basically entirely mid-tempo. No uptempo jams, none of those TPR nods to ‘90s slowcore. There were good songs on the record, definitely. But as a cohesive front-to-back album it’s the one Promise Ring record that doesn’t cut it for me.
When “Boys + Girls” came out it felt like everything I wanted out of whatever came after “Nothing Feels Good.” It was even more accessible and sophisticated. That was their strongest EP by a mile, at least to me.
I chose B+G second because I think it’s sort of what Very Emergency should have sounded like. It was a perfect bridge for where they were going and the songs were among their best: “Tell Everyone We’re Dead” is basically a perfect TPR song to me. And “Best Looking Boys” — not gonna lie. I love homosocial lyrics by straight boys. It also had that trademark jauntiness of their first two albums. (Jaunty is a word I use a lot when I think of the first two albums.)
Boys + Girls — the artwork puts this at the top of my list. just a great representation of (some of) the style at the time. nice package all around musically and aesthetically.
There was a time I listened to “Best Looking Boys” at least a half dozen times a day, every day, for almost an entire summer — I really irritated several co-workers and roommates, except for the one I managed to make a convert because of that song. If Boys + Girls had two more songs it’d be a very close second.
I couldn’t believe ‘Wood/Water’ was created by the same band. “Stop Playing Guitar” and “My Life is At Home” fit right in with my own doubts of songwriting and just about every insecure thought that I’ve ever had. It immediately connected with me and made going back to those earlier records, that I once thought were cringe-worthy, a lot easier to digest and appreciate.
I think Wood/Water is often unfairly hated on and it has gorgeous songs, but it’s still my least favorite Promise Ring full length.
Wood/Water did age the best and as we age, this album seems to resonate more than the Bad Religion tour with flying drinks and change.
But even with all the inherent nostalgia, Wood/Water is the Promise Ring record that keeps giving me something new. I could feel “My Life is at Home” when I was 22 and never had a real relationship, but I never really understood it until I actually started to live with somebody. The first verse of “Stop Playing Guitar” makes absolutely no fucking sense, but I’ve switched careers twice in my adulthood and it does make sense. “Suffer Never”, “Become One Anything One Time”, “Get On the Floor”, these are all platonic ideals for adult emo, to say nothing of “Half Year Sun” and “Wake Up April”, which are such bold experiments coming from a band like Promise Ring. I suppose they knew they were done while making that record, but it still takes a lot stones to make the sort of record that potentially subverts everything people love about you.
But that’s the thing about Wood/Water — it is everything I love about Promise Ring, only given more texture, more complexities, more ambition. It’s a record that risked utter failure and some would say it achieved just that. But Wood/Water is the Promise Ring record that still feels the most mine. I don’t think it’s been very influential, per se, but I do think it’s the record that connects people the most — I can’t tell you how many people I’ve bonded with over our love of Wood/Water, even prior to this. And that more than makes up for just how mindblowingly awful “Say Goodbye Good” is.
But man…I LOVE Wood / Water. I got super into Vermont before hearing Wood / Water…which is kind of weird…but that might be why I love Wood / Water so much. I was always more into the mellow jams. Every time I hear “Become One Anything One Time,” it’s all over. That’ll be stuck in my head for like a week straight.
“Wood/Water” is not the album that defined a time or, for a while there, an entire genre the way “Nothing Feels Good” did. It is not the album that landed them a two-page spread in Teen People. It is not The Promise Ring Album™ for most people of a certain age.
The fact that when it came out most would have placed it near the end and at least two of us have it near the top speaks volume about its shelf life.
But it is, without question, The Promise Ring album that aged the best. It is an incredibly warm and rewarding record that, if we’re getting Emo here, is also one of the saddest and most vulnerable albums that I can think. In the history of this genre, who has written a record this good that was a actually a break up album about A BAND and not a girl?
Most fans in the early ‘00s focused on how “Wood/Water” was a huge about-face that was obviously indebted to Wilco and Blur. I, too, was one of those people. In 2002, I probably shrugged off “Wood/Water” as mere idol worship. Now, I realize how original and special a record it is. (Also, while we’re here taking about those supposed idols, let’s face it: “Wood/Water” is a lot better than the last two Blur records, and much, much better than the last three Wilco records.)
All of that said, I get that putting “Wood/Water” in front of “Nothing Feels Good” is like putting “In Utero” in front of “Nevermind.” Or “Pinkerton” in front of “The Blue Album.” Or “Dear You” in front of “24 Hour Revenge Therapy.”
But here is the thing… I like ALL of those records better, too.
The Emo Council’s Ranking for
The Promise Ring:
1. Nothing Feels Good
2. Wood / Water
3. Boys + Girls
4. 30 Degrees Everywhere
5. Very Emergency
6. The Horse Latitudes
7. Electric Pink
The Promise Ring were one of the most popular emo bands of the '90s, epitomizing the poppier, more accessible wing of…open.spotify.com