The Wrens: This boy is exhausted
Wednesday 10 March @ 13:33:04
by P.J. Morel
Once upon a time, The Wrens all lived together in a house in Secaucus, New Jersey: Kevin, Jerry, Charles and Greg. They wrote very good songs, worked hard and, in 1996 released an excellent album, Secaucus. Critical chatter followed the Wrens then: Some people called them “The Next Big Thing.” The band toured near and far in hopes of getting a contract with a major record company.
One night, while the Wrens were on tour, a company (then called Grass Records) offered them a contract: a million bucks, in return for much of the band’s future work. But the band decided it wasn’t worth it and that they would keep looking. Time passed. They had discussions with a few other labels, they toured a little bit and released an EP on a small indie label. Eventually the Wrens decided they weren’t going to worry about a record contract and would just go make an album.
And then ...
And then nothing. No tours, no shows, no press, no interviews—no nothing. A band that had sparkled with prospects for fame and fortune seemingly disappeared from the world of men. Where had they gone? No one knew. Had the band really broken up, and not said anything about it? Would their last record ever see the light of day? What on earth had happened to the once-fabulous Wrens of Secaucus, New Jersey?
Charles Bissell, who plays guitar with the band, still struggles for words to explain what happened. “I think that when we were in the middle of making the record I would have just said, ‘Well, we’re in the middle of making a record,’” he says. “That’s kinda what I did say for four years. Still, I think if we knew it was gonna take that long, we probably would’ve broken up.”
Hunkered down, recording at home, the band passed four long years in the studio, writing, recording, and then intensively reworking the songs that would become The Meadowlands. Finally released late last year on Absolutely Kosher records, it’s a marvelous, sparkling, deeply-felt record, an honest-to-god indie rock masterpiece. And if the press likes to focus on their extreme misfortune in business (Grass records swooped down and acquired a then-unknown band called Creed when the Wrens said “no thanks,”) it’s clear that the real ordeal for the band was the day-to-day business of recording it.
“We weren’t entirely happy with either Silver or Secaucus, and we wanted to get things right this time,” Bissell explains. “But at the same time we had a way less clear idea of what we wanted to do than when we made Secaucus. Half the time [spent in the studio] was us getting it right, but another half the time was just us figuring out what right was, if that makes sense.”
It certainly makes sense from the other side of the process, because, while it must have been hard to see it then, the Wrens were undergoing a transformation of sorts. In 1999, when they began the record, the Wrens were still throwing off sparks. They had mainstream potential, albeit somewhat diminished from the heady days of the mid-’90s. Over four years spent in isolation, however, that heat went cold. When the band reemerged with The Meadowlands, they were a different beast altogether: ‘The Band That Never Made It.’
Critics and record companies are notoriously fickle, and hype should never be taken as the measure of a band’s work. But the long, solitary process of recording The Meadowlands precipitated a sea change in The Wrens’ music. Whereas Secaucus bubbled over with energy and ambition—champaigne uncorked too soon—The Meadowlands rumbles with confusion and doubt; while Secaucus is freewheeling and precocious, The Meadowlands is focused and refined.
Appropriately, the new album begins with a hush, emerging from the sound of crickets chirping with a subdued, one-verse melody:
“It’s been so long since you’ve heard from me/ Got a wife and kid that I never see/ And I’m nowhere near where I’d dreamed I’d be/ I can’t believe what life’s done to me.”
It’s a somber note to begin on; but then, characteristically, The Meadowlands starts to build its way out of that funk. By the time the second track, “Happy,” hits the coda, it’s become a slow riot of chiming guitars and counterpointed vocals.
Oddly enough, the band’s apathy for updating their website has given the Wrens’ fans an opportunity to hear the development of The Meadowlands in progress; until recently, they still had early versions of several tracks—some of them three or four years old—available for download. “Miss me,” in particular, (an early version of the song that would become “Boys, You Won’t,”) is a real gold mine.
“That’s one of the ones that changed the most,” concedes Bissell. “It’s also one of the ones that changed first. Like, pretty much right when that version was done. Which, if that’s the version that’s up on the site ... I gotta get it down.”
In the vein of their earlier work, “Miss Me” is snotty and brash. “It came out in that version with big rock guitars and it just felt like this alterna rock throwback and, I don’t know, we were just really mired down.” Perhaps already sensing that that sound wouldn’t work for them anymore, the band reassembled the song from the ground up. Dissonant noises and melancholy harmonies, pushed well into the background on the original, became prominent on “Boys, You Won’t,” and poppy, distorted guitars gave way to clean, tough, minor key chord progressions.
“The only thing that’s the same from the two versions is the drum track,” explains Bissell. “The difference is that the choruses now have a different number of measures in them. So the drums will switch gears at some very odd places, because there’s now extra measures to the chorus to make it all work out to be the same, ah...math.”
In many ways, this was characteristic of the recording process. “It took four years to make, but the bulk of what you hear was all written and recorded in the last year, except for the drums. So it’s like a three year scrap production and a one year run for the finish line—completely fat, bald and exhausted by the time we got there.”
The band even had a notorious tape-erasing party in the summer of 2002 to officially celebrate the completion of the album, performing the new songs and then erasing the master tapes at the conclusion of each. Bad idea, it turns out—they ended up deciding to change a bunch of things after that.
But sometimes in art the process becomes the product. And sometime in the ordeal of the last four years, The Wrens managed to transform all their hard work, doubt and misgivings into that rarest of commodities in indie rock: soul. It’s built from the heavy fabric of struggle, and the band wears it well.
The Wrens play Sat., Mar. 13, at the 7th St. Entry. With Bottom of the Hudson and Little Dirt. 9 p.m. $8. 21+. 701 First Ave. N., Mpls. 612-338-8388.
You can find out more about the Wrens on their official website.
Click to download an mp3 of the Wrens song Everyone Chooses Sides.