These Wrens fellows appear to be interesting, I thought to myself after reading a highly laudatory article about them in my favorite bimonthly music magazine. The band seemed like something of a mirror to my own life: thirty-somethings saddled with day jobs in the city, doing their art on evenings and weekends, working outside the music industry. So I looked into buying the Jersey-based band's third and latest album, The Meadowlands, and found it available for purchase online in a special limited-edition, "value added" pre-release version. And order it I did, receiving a very kind "thank you" email from someone at the label after PayPal-ing the funds.
It arrived a week later, in beautiful green and purple silk-screened cardboard packaging, number 637 of 1000, supplemented by a simple fold-over containing a rough lyrics sheet. Having never heard the band's music before, I didn't know what to expect. The first track surprised me with the sound of crickets, conjuring up a back-porch vibe, as a solitary acoustic guitar and quiet vocal told a brief, downbeat tale about a feller with a wife and kid that he never sees (Too busy at work? Divorced?) who can't believe what life has done to him.
The album then segues into the brilliantly brooding song-poem "Happy," which rides a bulldozer of a bass line and simple, echo-y guitar riff, the bedraggled singer quietly delivering the opening lines of the chorus-free song, breaking hearts with a sadly repeated "You don't even want to touch me." The music builds as a second guitar riff joins in, the voice gradually growing louder in his speak-singing until breaking into full-on reedy bellowing: "I was wrong/ I've wasted on/ Can't figure out/ What happened to us/ I won't count on you anymore/ I'll be all right/ Don't worry about me/ Aren't you happy now/ You got what you want/ I wanted you/ But I'm over that now." Recriminations fester, as Pete Townshend once sang.
That The Wrens guitarists Charles Bissell and Greg Whelan, bassist Kevin Whelan and drummer Jerry MacDonald then embark upon a horrendous misstep via the schlocky, squeezebox-driven ballad that is "She Sends Kisses" is mildly charming. But only mildly, unless the band's intent is to prove that they ain't no bar band even when they try to be one. "This Boy Is Exhausted" gets the ears perking up again, all aggressive drums and harmonies from the get-go. That The Wrens have been together for more than a decade becomes abundantly clear here, with the four members' voices blending and contrasting so well. Better still is "Hopeless," perhaps the band's best hope for airplay, which rides some very Wings-sounding synthesizer before exploding into a cacophony of aggressive guitars. "Faster Gun," "Per Second Second" and "Everyone Choose Sides" blaze similarly noisy power-pop paths, contrasting starkly with the majestic, key-tinged ballad "Thirteen Grand," the dramatic power of "Boys, You Won't Remember" and the quietly bubbly "Ex-Girl Collection."
But it's with the haunting penultimate track, "13 Months in 6 Minutes," that The Wrens leave their deepest impression on me. It's essentially a drone played mostly on what sounds like a strummed mandolin, mellow vocals recounting a May-December-ish love affair scarcely embarked upon, building to a tense, minute-long minimalist instrumental passage that magically breaks into a brief, 1960s-sounding group harmony vocal that slowly fades out. This could well be the song I listen to most this autumn whilst watching the wind dislodge the leaves from the trees, one that makes me feel a chill even when listened to indoors. A piano ballad with some jarringly loud vocals, "This Is Not What You Had Planned," closes the album.
There's a lot to like about The Meadowlands. That it was recorded over the course of four years in the band's living room partly explains away my misgivings that it isn't as focused as I might like. With all four members taking the mic, cohesion should hardly be expected. Yet, for all the different styles the band employs on this album, all but the closing number seem indelibly stamped as this band's work, uniquely The Wrens.