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This Is Not What You Had Planned

 

The Wrens: The Meadowlands

Absolutely Kosher, 2003

Rating: 4.6

 

 

Posted: October 3, 2003

By Laurence Station

To fully appreciate the Wrens' latest release, The Meadowlands, it's important to reflect on a key moment in the band's history. The New Jersey-based quartet started its career on Grass Records back in the mid-1990s. While the band was promoting its second release, Secaucus, the label head asked it to sign a big-dollar deal -- providing the group was willing to tailor their music to be more radio-friendly. The Wrens balked, and were summarily dropped from the roster. (Grass Records subsequently became Wind-Up Records, home to Creed and Evanescence; you can draw your own conclusions.) As for the Wrens: Well, the band continued to plod along for the remainder of the decade, releasing music on smaller labels when it could, and working McJobs to pay the bills. The Moral? The Wrens faced that crucial moment so many bands dream of, deciding whether to "sell out" or stay true to their creative vision, and accepted the latter, even at the risk of dropping off the rock radar altogether.

Having finally returned with just the third full-length album in their near fifteen-year history, the Wrens reveal just how mightily they've struggled with that pivotal decision. It's obvious throughout the album, from the murky, intentionally rough production to the intensely personal lyrics, that the band still believes in following a more intimate indie-rock creed. On "Everyone Chooses Sides", the sentiment "I walked away from more than you imagine / and I sleep just fine" rings with such uncompromising integrity as to make it impossible not to root for these guys.

But such nobility doesn't make it any easier to pay the bills, or to continue the pursuit of what you love to do. And that's what makes The Meadowlands such a fascinating, brokenhearted mess of a record. The Wrens did something they honestly believed in, but in doing so risked ever being able to afford pursuing that belief in an economically feasible and creatively rewarding manner. (And it probably didn't help matters any having to watch Scott Stapp's self-righteously devotional mug plastered all over the media as the last century came to an end.) The group could be speaking for countless bands possessed of the talent and motivation to give it all they had (The dearly departed Feelies, anyone?) for very little return. "This Boy Is Exhausted" sums up that sense of desperation: "I can't type / I can't temp / I'm way past college."

What makes this baker's dozen collection of intimate sketches about doubt, despair and heartbreak so impressive, however, is how painfully naked the band is when it comes to detailing the hardships of the past few years, showing off their stylistic diversity at the same time: The frenzied punk-rock pace of "Faster Gun" nicely complements lyrics like "Snow scenes level lonely bastards," while "Thirteen Grand"'s rueful declaration that "I lived my life waiting for tomorrow" is well-served by reserved, slower piano- and guitar-tinged country touches. Such moments help the band examine where it's been in a manner that isn't so self-pitying as to distract the listener from its consistently excellent musical choices.

Judging from the rest of the album, the Wrens haven't faired too well in the romantic department, either. "Happy" tosses bitter recriminations at a past lover who's successfully moved on; the scratchy, jangly-guitar-powered "Ex-Girl Collection" examines the messiness of the dating game, while "13 Months in 6 Minutes" explores the concept of two people spending their entire, rapidly disintegrating relationship attempting to recapture that one perfect first night.

The Meadowlands, then, is a document of a group that never did and most likely never will make it big, reporting on the hereafter where most bands in a similar boat sink below the waves of obscurity, never to be heard from again. And that's what makes it special. It's a difficult listen, because you know the Wrens are still striving to follow their muse, even as the bill collector bangs on the door and middle age encroaches. Then again, what if they had sold their souls for the brass ring? Most likely, they'd just be another disposable million-selling band like Creed, and an album as excellent as The Meadowlands would never have gotten made. The Wrens' multitude of losses turns out to be the music world's gain. Let's hope enough people listen to ensure we haven't heard the last from this sincere, genuinely talented band.

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