A strange thing happened when alternative and punk entered the mainstream: As the pop-culture floodgates opened up to the aggressive, raw strains of Nirvana, Ministry, Sonic Youth, and Green Day in the early '90s, elements of the mainstream's often tepid and disposable pop music began to seep back into the underground, from whence grunge, industrial, and pop-punk came. In the process, the underground itself started to become homogenized, and there may be no better example of this than Very Emergency!, the third album by Milwaukee's the Promise Ring.
The band and its ilk -- those in the newly stigmatized genre of "emocore," or emotional hardcore -- have active- ly sought to remain within their indie- underground scene while, ironically enough, creating the very same midtempo radio-friendly jangle rock bands like the Replacements and Soul Asylum spent so much of their careers playing in order to break through to the mainstream.
So, where does the Promise Ring fit into all of this? Although the group is reluctant to be associated with "emo," consider the following: Very Emergency! features plenty of formulaic quiet part/loud part dynamics and lightly distorted ringing guitars, à la alternative stars Sugar, Weezer, the Goo Goo Dolls, the Breeders, ad nauseam. The songs are packaged complete with the obligatory closing repetition of a poignant vocal line, the singer sounding pushed just to the brink of disturbance. On tracks like "Living Around" and "Happiness Is All the Rage," cuddlebumpkin vocalist/guitarist Davey Von Bohlen cheerily sings like an out-of-breath "Weird Al" Yankovic. Clearly striving for the classic power-pop sounds of Big Star and Cheap Trick, the closest the Promise Ring comes to that is Soul Asylum and the Lemonheads.
The Promise Ring is not bad at what it does. In fact, it creates some of the most cheery and disposable pop music to surface since the Ohio Express declared, "Yummy, yummy, yummy, I've got love in my tummy." Certainly, bubble-gum pop music can be a refreshing listen, and a fluffy tune never killed anybody. But what the Ring and other purveyors of emo have unwittingly done in the midst of their overwhelming indie-rock success is help turn the underground into the same old music business. Instead of crossing over, the Promise Ring is content to hold court over a pop subculture -- a subculture that's becoming an exact replica of the über-culture's insipid archetypes.