by Michael Goldberg
Monday, September 29, 2003
The Triumph Of The Wrens
After seven years, a New Jersey quartet returns with the album of the year
The Wrens are a great story. It's so good that this obscure New Jersey group managed to get themselves featured in the New York Times arts section earlier this month. It's the story of a talented band that became a potential "next big thing" for about a minute before being dumped back in Nowhere Ville.
That could have been the end of the story, only The Wrens didn't accept their fate. Instead of breaking up, they hung together and, seven years after the release of their last album (Secaucus), have surfaced with what just may be the best album of 2003, The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher).
And that's the real story here. It's not that the band members have been to hell and back (sounds like they have), but that they didn't let their circumstances stop them from recording a masterpiece, the kind of album that can make a difference in the lives of those who hear it.
What matters is the music. You don't need the back-story for this music to make your day a little easier, your life a bit brighter. There's sadness and despair, rejection and a feeling of hopelessness in these songs. There's also determination and integrity, perseverance and hope. One doesn't have to be a victim of circumstances. One can make the most of life, which is just what The Wrens have done.
The Wrens formed in the early '90s and had their debut, 1994's Silver, released by Grass Records in 1994; Secaucus (Grass) followed in 1996. Both albums earned them good reviews from the critics. They spent a couple of years chasing a major-label deal and were offered a million-dollar contract by the guy who went on to take Creed to the top. They turned the deal down because, according to The New York Times, they didn't like the terms, which would have meant signing away "so much of their future work." Five years ago they retired to the basement of the Secaucus house where three members of the band live and began work on the album that became The Meadowlands.
Like a Collection of Short Stories
The Meadowlands is a concept album the way, maybe, Springsteen's Born to Run and The River are concept albums. You can ignore the concept and just dig the sound, or you can dig in deeper and appreciate the bits and pieces of the story that unfolds across the album's 13 songs.
Maybe "concept album" sells The Wrens' work short. It's more literary than that implies. Instead, think of The Meadowlands as akin to a collection of short stories, with each story (song) somewhat related to the others, yet able to stand on its own.
The Meadowlands is a somewhat fictionalized version of The Wrens' own story, the story of four guys guitarists Charles Bissell and Greg Whelan, bassist Kevin Whelan and drummer Jerry MacDonald trying to be a band, trying to live their lives the best way they know how, trying to make a buck, trying to keep relationships together, and then telling us their side of the story when some of those relationships fall apart. It's also the story of a band that hoped, like all bands, that they'd make it big, but then were ground down by the music business before they even had a real shot at success.
The story is a bummer, man. "I'm nowhere near/ What I dreamed I'd be/ I can't believe/ What life has done to me," is part of the lyric from the album opener, "The House That Guilt Built." It's a gentle ballad played on an acoustic guitar as crickets can be heard in the background.
You could look at The Wrens as victims, victims wallowing in what went wrong, lashing out at those who let them down when, perhaps, they weren't willing to make that deal with the devil that most artists who become successful have to make. And perhaps that A&R man they dis in "The Boy Is Exhausted," the one who "can't tell a hit from hell," whose "faith is one single long" made the right decision he works for a record company that's in business to make a profit, not to finance art. 'Course I don't really believe that. That fool should have taken a chance. He could have gone down in history as the guy with the balls to sign The Wrens to a major-label deal; instead, he's the "suit" who let the real thing slip through his hands 'cause he was scared, or worse, didn't even know what was standing in his office.
"We Might Win"
I don't look at The Wrens as victims. What I love about The Meadowlands is how honest it is. These guys lay it all out there. Through their songs one gets a vivid picture of what their life has been like for them. Yeah, they've felt defeated, and they tell us what that's like. Yeah, they think that A&R man sucks, so they describe him as incompetent. They know they had to make tough decisions, and they made them, holding true to their values even if it meant losing a chance at the "big time." "Fatty come a courtin' lord the money!/ Everyone choose sides/ The whole to-do of what to do for money.../ I walked away from more than you imagine and I sleep just fine."
So that gives you some sense of what they're singing about. But I haven't begun to tell you what a trip listening to this album from start to finish is.. I've listened on headphones, I've listened on speakers in my office where I write, I've listened in the car and on a plane and in a hotel room. This album has almost totally dominated my listening for the past two-to-three weeks. Yeah, it's one of those. The more you play it, the more you dig it. At first just a few songs click, but after a dozen plays I was digging every song.
This is an album with a wide range of sounds and styles. It all sounds like The Wrens, but like The Beatles at their best, The Wrens can move from lush pop ("Thirteen Grand") to art rock ("Faster Gun") to Flamin' Groovies-style power pop ("This Boy Is Exhausted, ""Ex-Girl Collection") to roaring rock ("Per Second Second"; "Everyone Chooses Sides"). It all holds together, all flows, all makes sense.
Possibly the best song on the album is the magnificent "This Boy Is Exhausted." The music is a rush of jangly guitars and stacked vocals. Like the Groovies' "Shake Some Action" turned inside out, the music builds and builds, peaking again and again, like an orgasm that won't stop. The lyrics alternate between verses that detail how life has worn the singer down ("I can't type/ I can't temp/ I'm way past college/ No ways out/ No back doors/ Not anymore") and choruses in which the singer conveys how good he feels when the bandmembers get together and rock out ("But then Greg plugs in/ A treble checking that says we might win"). This song sums up the whole album, in the way it portrays hope triumphing over adversary.
Certainly I'm sucker for the story of a great band who overcame music-biz rejection, who forged ahead and made a terrific album on their terms. I admire The Wrens for what they've accomplished. And I have the feeling that there's plenty more that we'll be hearing from these guys in the years to come. And now I'll let them have the last word with this final line from "The Boy Is Exhausted": "I guess we're done/ 'Cause every win on this record's hard won."