Times have been rough for The Promise Ring.

Paul Wong
The boys are back in town. The Boys Choir of Harlem, that is!<br><br>Courtesy of UMS

The emo stalwarts have lagged commercially behind their increasingly successful peers, The Get-Up Kids, Saves The Day and Jimmy Eat World, falling short of the crossover triumph that seemed within their reach with the release of 1999″s Very Emergency. There has been no heavy rotation on MTV2 and no arena tour with Weezer. While younger bands were getting attention for milking his band”s formula of melodic, confessional punk with a poppy, suburban twist, frontman Davey Von Bohlen found himself in the hospital with one hell of a headache.

Diagnosed with a fist-sized benign brain tumor, the singer/guitarist and his band were forced to cancel a string of dates through the US and Europe. Everything became tentative and fans worried it might all be over.

But Von Bohlen is on the mend and Calling Albany, his new record with acoustic side project Vermont, proves that the prognosis is very good. Along with Promise Ring drummer Dan Didler and guitarist Chris Rosenau, of fellow Milwaukee indie-rockers, Pel, Albany finds Von Bolhen easing back into music, putting off the usual roar of TPR for a quieter sound less likely pain to his still tender head.

The record picks up pretty much where the trio left off with their last outing, Living Together. Both albums are stripped-down, melancholy affairs with simple but usually beautiful melodies complementary to Von Bohlen”s introspective lyrics and sweetly straining tenor. Like Bob Mould or Paul Westerberg, Von Bohlen and company”s songs sound just as satisfying or better when you temper the blast and let the hidden melody take over.

While still pretty loose, Albany”s tunes are a bit more crafted, a bit fuller than Vermont”s first time around. The change is subtle, though: A country-twang here, a little more guitar interplay or percussion there. It”s not a departure from Living Together by any means, but maybe it is a refinement.

Von Bolhen”s brush with death is also on the record, but only peripherally. Questions about morality, heaven and hell hang about the edges of the record. It is a sad little album about loneliness and longing, “but I never got much relieve from sharing my grief,” as Von Bolhen sings. But the bittersweetness lightens up now and then for some earnest hope or deadpan humor.

That humor usually comes from referencing the adolescent world these 20-something youths or parents” record collections. Standouts “Ballad Of Larry Bird” and “Arrest Harrison Ford!” remind us of whom every little boy in the “80s idolized, while “Hello-Goodbye Sex” quotes the chorus from “Long and Winding Road” and “Commodores 64” has less to do with the piece-o-crap computer from your elementary school than it does with Lionel Richie and “Three Times a Lady.” Perhaps that”s what Vermont is about three guys getting back to a world that existed for them before they found Minor Threat and Husker Du and formed bands to complain about girls and teenage angst.

But for fans, the real test will come April 23 when the Promise Ring drop their fourth album, Woodwater the band”s first since leaving long time label Jade Tree. With British Producer Stephen Street (Blur and the Smiths) helping out, many are speculating that Von Bohlen and the boys are going to continue the trends of Vermont by moving further away from emo and onto more loose, atmospheric rock. We”ll have to wait a few months to find out. Until then, enjoy this mellow little record.

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