So often, the best songs are the simplest songs. Anyone who doesn't believe that should go out and buy any of the Ramones' first three records and listen to that band turn three chords and a handful of words into pure perfection. Sometimes, all it takes for a song to permanently tattoo itself onto your cerebral cortex is one strong hook or one sublime chorus. Listen to Squeeze's "Up The Junction" once and just try to get Jools Holland's keyboard riff out of your head. At its heart, every great song has a simple, killer melody that propels it onto the permanent disc-changer in your brain, forcing you to hum it at red lights and sing it in the shower.
On 1996's 30 Degrees Everywhere, the Promise Ring was never quite able to find that special ingredient that transforms a normal song into one that causes you to hit repeat on the CD player five times in a row just to hear the chorus again. The potential was obvious, but it was often obscured by whiny posturing and dissonant guitars. You could hear something, hidden in the shadows, unveiling itself in frustrating glimpses. Afterward, you were left wondering whether or not you had actually heard anything at all, the aural equivalent of a UFO sighting. The band seemed destined for permanent residence in the emo-core ghetto.
However, at some point before they went into the studio to record 1997's Nothing Feels Good, the Promise Ring bowed to the pop gods, and the results are astounding. Instantly denounced by the notoriously snobbish indie crowd as a "sellout," Nothing packs a sense of melody only hinted at on 30 Degrees. All 12 songs are hook-laden, would-be hit singles that are just a little too gritty to make it past the slush pile at alternarock radio. Freed from their early, brooding tendencies, the songs have been boiled down to their bare essentials: three chords and a chorus. Some (such as "Perfect Lines") contain only a sentence or two, and on most others singer-guitarist Davey von Bohlen repeats the chorus endlessly, almost as though he's trying to get himself to believe what he's saying. Guitarist Jason Gnewikow explodes from soft to loud the way the Pixies' Joey Santiago used to, creating the feeling of a fire moving from room to room until the whole damned building is ablaze. Selling out never sounded thi s good.
The Promise Ring performs March 19 at the Orbit Room. With Jimmy Eat World.