In our MKE Music Rewind series, we revisit notable Milwaukee music that was released before Milwaukee Record became a thing in April 2014.

I have a confession to make: I didn’t get into The Promise Ring until Very Emergency.

I realize this confession means little in the cruel light of 2019, but back in 1999, when Very Emergency was first released (20 years ago!), it was fairly controversial. Milwaukee’s beloved Promise Ring had been beloved for a few years at that point; the band’s two full-length albums (1996’s 30° Everywhere, 1997’s Nothing Feels Good) and a handful of EPs had solidified them as leaders of the Midwest emo scene. But with Very Emergency, The Promise Ring made a subtle but important shift to full-on pop. Reactions to the move were…mixed.

In an otherwise positive 8.2 review, Pitchfork summed up the listening public’s feelings with a remember-how-snarky-Pitchfork-used-to-be? “performance evaluation”:

Complete results of evaluation published 9/21/99 under title Very Emergency (see attached reference document). Initial results appear mixed; subject’s newfound commitment to conventional pop song structures and chord progressions appears to displace energy levels to detrimental effect (cf. previous full performance evaluation, Nothing Feels Good, for comparison). Chorus integrity has increased significantly, but melodic development in verse lags behind (Figure 1, “Happiness Is All the Rage;” Fig. 4, “Happy Hour”). Lyric quotient slightly higher than before, but given new reliance on conventional structures, still below average.

Maybe there was something in the air that summer. Just a month earlier, Guided By Voices had released the decidedly pop-leaning (and Ric Ocasek-produced) Do The Collapse. Longtime fans of that band were equally flummoxed.

I bring up Do The Collapse because that album, along with Very Emergency, absolutely sum up “Milwaukee summer, 1999” in my brain. For me, it was the summer of Atomic Records, Milk Magazine, and the Globe East. It was the summer of Tuesday nights at the Landmark and Friday nights at Mad Planet. It was the summer of crushing on a girl who would eventually marry a member of another prominent local emo band. (Oh, Smallwaukee.) It was the summer of living on Farwell Avenue with my friend JJ and playing Final Fantasy VIII until the wee hours of the morning. We had a stereo system crammed into the faux-fireplace of our second-story flat, and we blasted the ever-loving shit out of Very Emergency that summer. (Another favorite: The Sheila Divine’s New Parade, a recommendation from Milk.) We were 21 years old.

Why hadn’t I gotten into The Promise Ring before? I’m honestly not sure. I had certainly heard 30° Everywhere and Nothing Feels Good, and I think I may have even owned a copy of the Boys + Girls EP. But I’m a sucker for a good pop song, and Very Emergency is loaded with them. The kinda-sorta title track, “Emergency! Emergency!” is a stone-cold classic:

The list goes on. “The Deep South,” “Happy Hour,” and “Skips A Beat (Over You)” are insidiously catchy head-boppers that practically scream “SUMMER!” Meanwhile, “Things Just Getting Good” and closer “All Of My Everythings” slow things down and point to The Promise Ring’s next album, the criminally maligned (in its day) Wood/Water. “Things Just Getting Good” also features my favorite moment of the record, where singer Davey von Bohlen gives gentle shout-outs to his band members (and himself):

Davey, oh Davey
Don’t tell me that you’re crazy
And Jason [Gnewikow], oh Jason
Look now what you’ve been chasing
Dan DJ [Didier], yeah DJ
You can spend all day in your PJs
With Scott Schoenbeck, yeah Scott Schoenbeck
His head feels like a trainwreck tonight

(Two years later, Jimmy Eat World would do a similar shout-out on “A Praise Chorus,” with singer Jim Adkins giving a lyrical nod to guest vocalist…Davey von Bohlen.)

But again: why did the semi-divisive Very Emergency resonate with me, while other Promise Ring albums had not? The older I get the more I realize the absolute truth in a basic truism: all art is subjective. I dearly love Very Emergency because of who I was, where I was, and what I was doing when it came out. Listening to the ebullient “Living Around” instantly takes me back to those days of, well, living around. I was 21 years old. It’s as simple as that.

And yet…one of the perks of my job is how it keeps me current on the Milwaukee Music Scene of today. In one breath, I can look back to 20 years ago and pine for the Milwaukee music of yesterday; in the next, I can love the Milwaukee music of today, and look forward to the Milwaukee music of tomorrow. The sun may have set on my summer (of ’99) career, but, as the song says, things are just getting good.

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