2003 (Absolutely Kosher Records)
4 / 4 stars
Comfort does not encourage creativity. Such was the addendum that produced all seminal bands of the last 30 years. Black Sabbath, the Smiths and Joy Division all hailed from the dismally depressing factory towns of either Birmingham or Manchester. Nirvana triumphantly arose from the dark, rainy milieu of Seattle. The aforementioned bands were all primarily reactionary to scenic environments. The Wrens are different. The epic “The Meadowlands” isn’t a response to depressing weather or dark horizons, but rather dire social circumstances - failed relationships, a botched record deal, legal troubles, desk jobs and death.
In 1996, the band members released the stellar sophomore outing, “Secaucus,” named after their Jersey hometown, on Grass records. Grass was then bought out by entrepreneur Alan Melzter. Halfway through the tour support of “Secaucus,” Melzter urged the band to sign a six-figure contract that would turn it into the next pop radio sluts, in the vein of Third Eye Blind or Matchbox 20. The Wrens, wary of losing creative control, refused to sign the deal and Grass Records withdraws support of “Secaucus.” The record is now out of print, causing die-hard fans to fork over upwards of $50 on eBay for the classic. Melzter took the money, signed Creed, and turned Grass Records into Wind Up Records. The subsequent three years were spent in legal battles with Interscope, and in 1999 the Wrens began the slow process of writing and recording “The Meadowlands,” an introspective look at how the lives of the Wrens have changed over the years. Finally in 2003, “The Meadowlands” sees the light of day.
Thus, it’s very fitting that the opening track, “The House that Guilt Built,” sings, “It’s been so long, since you heard from me. I’m nowhere near what I dreamed I’d be. I can’t believe what life has done to me.”
“Meadowlands” deviates from the youthfully urgent pop pastures of “Secaucus,” but after learning the circumstances of this exhausting seven-year delayed LP, the transition seems all too natural. Depressing girl songs are still here, but “The Meadowlands” proves to be a much more personal oeuvre, namely tracks “This Boy is Exhausted,” and “Ex-girl Collection.”
What makes “Meadowlands” exceptional is Bissell’s perfect balance between emotion and vulnerability. Too little emotion leaves the singer looking like an impassive, lifeless drone, like Julian Casablancas. Too much emotion can make songs turn into menopausal wails, like Connor Oberst. Charles Bissell’s lullabies, while depressing, are far from contrived. He doesn’t wear depression as a badge of honor; he doesn’t want scene points or sympathy. He’s genuine, which is a rare occurrence in a scene where new bands pop up left and right, but for all the wrong reasons.
To put it bluntly, the Wrens work crap jobs. Usually cubicle-indentured servitude robs musicians of creative ambition, but in this case it only fuels the fire of Bissell’s ardent lyricism. To make matters worse, they also live in suburbia hell (no offense New Jersians). At this point countless comparisons to fellow Jersey-poppers Fountains of Wayne latest “Welcome Interstate Managers,” could be made on the premise of suburbia, tedious desk jobs, and unfair record deals, but why bother? Fountains of Wayne is a cookie cutter with storybook third-person songs to be taken at face value. The Wrens has what Fountains lacks, first-person accountability and depth, which translates to replay value and countless amounts of spins.
How did the band capture such a sound? Droves of musicians will wonder. But neither $250,000-endowed hip studio owners (read: DFA) nor denim-clad hype inducing “the” bands will ever garner a fraction of the sonic sorrow of “The Meadowlands.” What do the Wrens have that the aforementioned hacks don’t? Destitution. Pain. Loss.
In typical root for the good-guys mindset, one might hope that the Wrens can successfully use “Meadowlands” to emerge from desk jobs and live off its music. But in doing so, would this rob the band of the trounced spirit that created such a classic like this album?
The rock revival has forcefully arrived thanks to major labels and the mainstream (lazy) music press, and it couldn’t be more vacant. If the trust funding hyped “revolutionaries” diverted their attention away from their hair and denim and spent a day in the Wrens’ shoes, maybe they’d be onto something. Until then, the only revolution lies this writer’s CD player.