Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Wrens. The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher, 2003)

"A sophomore at Brown/ She worked lost and found/ I put your face on her all year."

There was a lot of ink spilled about New Jersey's Wrens when their buzzing indiepop masterpiece The Meadowlands dropped in 2003. The basic story goes like this:

The Wrens released their debut LP, the shoegazing Silver, way back in 1994. They followed up this first salvo with the far more focused, tightly-wound, pop-perfect treasure Secaucus in '96 to increasing acclaim and attention. And then.... and then. They got dropped by their label (Grass, which would go on to release Creed. No shit), and floundered for the best part of the decade. The 20th century turned to the 21st as Clinton turned to Bush and this Jersey quartet's hopes turned to ash. All seemed lost.

But lo, these Garden State troupers persevered, writing songs and polishing their chops in the salt of their own tears. Careers were started and floundered. Children were had and marriages collapsed. And all the while the Wrens (Charles Bissel, Greg Whelan, Kevin Whalen, and Jerry MacDonald) continued to toil away, using the years to craft what would eventually emerge as The Meadowlands, an album greeted -- when it was finally released by California-based label Absolutely Kosher in 2003 -- to universal huzzahs.

All of the sudden the Wrens went from half-remembered also-rans with potential and little else to indierock darlings, triumphantly selling out shows, moving units, and basking in long-delayed and much-deserved adulation. They were a great band with a great record and a great backstory.

And it's hard to argue against The Meadowlands, a breakup -- worse, a divorce -- record of the highest shelf. You'll certainly never find a disparaging word about this collection cross the threshold of my lips. It's a classic LP and no mistake, a cornucopia of irresistible pop drenched in hooks and infectious melodies, bursting with literate lyrics delivered with an energy and enthusiasm born of desperation and the recognition of near-disaster. There's sadness in spades, and disappointment and resentment and a king's ransom of terrible decisions, but there's unbridled joy, too. And it's the joy that sells the record. Joy and palpable relief.

The delicate, cheerily droning opener of "The House That Guilt Built" lays out the situation in brutal clarity, a straightforward explanation of the years between Secaucus and The Meadowlands. "Its been so long/ Since you've heard from me," Bissel recounts. "Got a wife and kid that I never see/ And I'm nowhere near what I dreamed I'd be/ I can't believe what life has done to me." The song sets the tone for the unsparing realism of the rest of the record, a chronicle of disillusionment and infidelity the likes of which has rarely been put to tape in such plain language. It's a harrowing listen at times, tempered repeatedly by the unflinching tunefulness of the songs.

Because the songs rule, every man jack of them. Hear Happy's infectiously chiming melancholy riff and try not to get sucked in to the track's steadily building momentum. The band ratchets up the volume and intensity as Bissel's wailing becomes increasingly intense. ""Don't worry about me/ Aren't you happy now?" he demands before spitting, "Got what you want/ I wanted you/ But I'm over that now." When the band turns the tune on a dime at the 4:09 mark, going from raucous churn to tight surfy bop, it's liable to suck the wind right out of you.

She Sends Kisses employs a tear-jerking melody and heartfelt lyrics about distance and desire to devastating effect. This Boy is Exhausted is bursting with luminous chords and bah-bah-bahs, a soaring highlight. Hopeless is one of the LP's most powerful offerings, with a slashing guitar centerpiece, slamming rhythm section, and withering sentiments: "This isn't what I wanted/ I should have listened them/ Go thank yourself for nothing/ It's really all you're good for." "Faster Gun" and "Everyone Choose Sides" search and destroy while the sunny Ex-Girl Collection charms in the best tradition of the La's and "Here Comes Your Man"-mode Pixies.

The Meadowlands is one of the best-regarded albums of the rapidly dwindling '00s, and will doubtless be remembered as one of the top 10 -- if not top 5 -- LPs of the decade. Sadly, the Wrens -- after touring so much behind The Meadowlands that my friends and I started getting annoyed about it, like, put out some new material already 'cuz I'm not paying to hear the same songs again, again -- have been aggressively recreating the post-Secausus era by not releasing a single goddam thing since '03. Bissel has been touring with Okkervil River, and I don't know what the other dudes have been up to.

But if The Meadowlands drained the Wrens of all they had left, then so be it. And I can't blame them. After all, most bands can't hope to produce anything approaching as good as The Meadowlands, ever. Good for them.