The Promise Ring: Wood/Water

The Promise Ring: Wood/Water

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Album: Wood/Water
Label: Anti

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Any time connoisseurs start grumbling that their favorite band has "sold out," chances are good that the object of their newfound derision has just made its best album. That's definitely the case with The Promise Ring's Wood/Water, a shady, insular pop record removed from the anthemic punk melodicism that the Milwaukee quartet rode to cult stardom. Recorded in England with one-time Morrissey collaborator Stephen Street (also known for his work with Blur and The Webb Brothers), Wood/Water finds The Promise Ring learning new modes of expression. In the case of "Stop Playing Guitar," the result is a slower, roomier version of the hooky guitar-rock the band has long performed. The song is basically a power ballad, albeit an unusually catchy one, with a swinging backbeat. For "Suffer Never," The Promise Ring and Street add a woozy compound of synthesizers and distorted guitar to an up-tempo acoustic base, lending a dimension of disconcertion to all the pretty positivism. "Become One Anything One Time"—which has a "la la" chorus that sounds almost litigiously like the bridge to The Mysteries Of Life's "Downhill"—returns again to the slow and quiet, stretching out in the same manner as the song's elastic slide guitar. Bandleader Davey Von Bohlen sings in a high, cracking voice, often returning to words like "heart" and "us." The album's centerpiece, the tender "Wake Up April," works from a muted drum machine and the light tinkling of an electric keyboard, as Von Bohlen rasps away about the potential for greatness: The band slowly moves from a small scale to a large one ("Wake up, America," begins the final verse), before shifting into a pacific sway for the coda. What may be irritating some of The Promise Ring's former fans is that Wood/Water purposefully leaves aside youthful aggression in favor of probing, thoughtful musicality. The group now has more in common with worldly indie-rockers like Guided By Voices, Superchunk, The Flaming Lips, Wheat, and The Delgados; the maturation process is like a bold rebuke to those who'd rather not grow up. But it would be easy and dull for The Promise Ring to keep cranking and bashing, instead of searching for a sound that better matches its moods. While the purists may complain that the new music lacks balls, it certainly has guts.

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