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[whitespace] The Promise Ring Photograph by Andy Mueller

Cheese Heads: The Promise Ring gives Wisconsin a good name.

Float On

The Promise Ring is easy, like Sunday morning

By Spence Dookey

SUNDAY MORNING. Traditionally, it's a time for reflection, lazy breakfasts and quietude--hardly the time for listening to guitar-driven rock & roll, especially if you're nursing a hangover. To wit, the perfect Sunday-morning kind of album to have playing behind the noise of sizzling eggs and bacon is one that is mellow, languid--something that provides soothing and familiar background noise.

Funny then that Wisconsin-bred power-pop/mellow-punk band the Promise Ring would deliver such a Sunday-morning epic with its fourth album, Wood/Water (Epitaph). Funny, too, that the whole Sunday-morning slant was not culled from the mercurial mind of some pithy rock critic but rather from that of the band's guitarist Jason Gnewikow.

"Carole King's Tapestry or Mark Eitzel's 60-Watt Silver Lining." Those are the perfect Sunday-morning albums, other than his band's latest effort, according to Gnewikow. While vastly different from either of those recommendations, Wood/Water is still the kind of record that makes you cry inside while enveloping you in a sense of warm bittersweetness.

Yet Wood/Water is also the perfect album to listen to while deep in the throes of Tomb Raider III. It's one of those rare records that work when played loud, and it sounds equally phenomenal on headphones, in the car or on the boom box. The album captivates from start to finish. In a sentence--diehard TPR followers may wish to hold their breath here--Wood/Water is a mature, fully realized album made by a bunch of twentysomethings.

The band has made a startling progression from the amateurish sound of 1996's 30 Degrees Everywhere to the raucous power-pop blasts of Nothing Feels Good to the almost stoic-sounding Very Emergency. As if to illustrate the Promise Ring's growth, the songs on Wood/Water run the gamut from "Size of Your Life," which sounds strangely reminiscent of Bryan Adams' "Cuts Like a Knife," to the countrified twang of "Become One Anything One Time." Jason refers to the record as "the older cousin to Nothing Feels Good."

Although uncharacteristically grounded on Wood/Water, the band still takes a rather unorthodox approach to making its music. "When we go to make records, it's just a mystery, since I don't really understand the guitar very well," Gnewikow admits. "Which is fine, 'cause I think that actually works to our advantage in a lot of ways. I think that's what makes bands end up sounding kind of trite, you know, when they are so good that they can hear something and be like 'That should sound like this' and then they can totally replicate it. That sucks all the spontaneity out of it. ... I can't rely on my prowess as a guitar player, so I have to rely entirely on the vibe."

While Jason's reliance on vibe has undoubtedly contributed to the rich luster of Wood/Water, one cannot ignore the impact that the hand of fate dealt lead singer Davey von Bohlen over the past two years. Not many bands have lived through their lead singer having a fist-sized tumor excised from his brain.

"It's not as heavy as people probably thought it was," says Gnewikow with surprising matter-of-factness. "When he was diagnosed it was terrifying, but he was diagnosed on a Friday, and he was in surgery the following Monday. It was removed, and the prognosis was good."

Even so, going through such an ordeal had to have the band wondering about its musical future. "I don't think any of us really thought of it in terms of 'the band,'" he says. "Davey is like one of my oldest friends, and at that point you don't think of it in such literal terms, you think of it more in terms of 'Wow, what if my best friend dies?' Not like 'I hope my crummy fucking band can keep playing.'"

Davey's outlook on the whole thing is rather simple and upbeat, devoid of all the terminal romance the press has been so fond of. "It's nice to have new songs again and just kind of nice to be playing music. That's all we really care about now," he says.

"We're not the best musicians out there," he adds almost as an afterthought. "We're just doing the best we can, and hopefully we're getting better. And that's why anybody does anything is to get better and to challenge yourself."

Those are words to live by, whether you're in a band, recovering from a benign brain tumor or just living your life the best way you know how.

The Promise Ring and the Weakerthans perform Monday-Tuesday (May 6-7) at 8pm at Slim's, 333 Eleventh St., San Francisco. Tickets available through BASS and Virtuous. (415.255.0333)

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From the May 2-8, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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