The Wrens
The Meadowlands
Absolutely Kosher

this album, like all albums worth listening to, is about a girl.

Or, more accurately, several. Last time around, The Wrens introduced us to Jane, Annette and Sonja, and this time we make the acquaintance of Britt, Ann and Beth--multiple times, even. These girls, along with the dozens of nameless perpetrators found in the heartbreaking songs of post-relationship trauma found on Meadowlands, the new opus from the cult favorite Jersey quartet. Liked “Jane Fakes a Hug,” the gorgeous Secaucus centerpiece? How about “It’s Not Getting Any Good,” the heart rendering closer? Know all the words by heart? The Wrens certainly hope so, because here they’ve given you thirteen songs just like ‘em.

Well, not just like ‘em. The band’s last album, Secaucus, came out an awful long time ago (1995, 1996 or 1998, depending on whether you consult copyright date, AMG, or its wide release) and things were pretty different then. At the time, Secaucus was an important part of a series of albums, including early efforts from Spoon and the Dismemberment Plan, that served as a turning point in indie rock chronology, away from the amateurism and lo-fi charm of Pavement and Archers of Loaf and towards a poppier, more energetic sound that is defines the indie we know today. At 19 songs but under an hour in duration, Secaucus was a fucking blast—a blast of passion, of creativity, of sheer fun. The songs spilled over into one another, never even pausing to take a breath between tracks, going faster than the Indy 500 and even naming a song after it. On the rare occasions they did slow it down, they were even better, even more innovative—the warped acoustic guitar and chilling harmonies on “Won’t Get Too Far,” the chaotic white noise that concludes the aforementioned “Jane Fakes a Hug” and the endless reverberating echoes in the guitar intro to “Safe and Comfortable,” all served as cooling points in the album but never sacrificed its unparalleled momentum. The more I think about it the more I realize just what a classic Secaucus was.

I expected a comeback album.

It just isn’t easy for a band to come back from eight years of solitude with a work that progresses in any way besides the standard tweaking of the formula. However, it’s not impossible. The Breeders proved that last year with Title TK, the last album since their 1993 watershed classic Last Splash. The album was relatively poorly received but the one thing that could not be said about the album is that they tweaked the formula. They started anew, what any band should do so long after their glory days. And I’d rather that they had done that and failed miserably (though I liked the album quite a bit) than come up with an album of lesser “Cannonball”s and “Divine Hammer”s.

And so the Wrens have done here. I underestimated them. There is no “Rest Your Head” on this album, no “Hats off to Marriage,” and certainly no “Indie 500”. The only two fast songs on the album sound too drained to be considered pop or punk, confused and garbled with nonsensical and incomprehensible lyrics—on “Per Second Second” the vocals are placed so low in the mix that if the lyrics weren’t printed in the liner notes, you’d be forgiven for thinking it an instrumental. The Wrens are done with that. They’ve matured, and this isn’t a bad thing—the sound is mellower, more 70s AM radio influenced (a friend and I argued which 1996 retro hit “She Sends Kisses” sounds more like—Counting Crows’ “A Long December” or The Wallflowers’ “6th Avenue Heartache,” agreeing that sounding like either is an awesome thing). It’s a perfect complement to the Wrens sound of old and, more importantly, still extremely urgent.

And yes, all the songs—save for “The Boy is Exhausted” and maybe the two fast songs (who knows?)—are about girls. By the time of the absolutely stunning (and I mean stunning, in almost every way I can think that the word could be defined as, and in a way that maybe ten songs have affected me in my life) second track, “Happy,” Meadowlands even requires a temporary suspension of disbelief, because it sounds so damn emo. That’s right, the genre that strikes fear into the heart of hipsters worldwide has taken its toll on the Wrens:

You’re the one that I want
You’re a chance to take
You’re a hard break
And you swore you’d never leave again

A four-note bass line to make Kim Deal proud propels the song, complemented by a weeping three-note guitar riff. You think this is direct? Wait until the climax:

I’m so sick of you
What we went through
Your lies to me
Won’t win again
So don’t kid yourself
It’s better this way

But a truly great band can make you believe, and damned if the Wrens aren’t making their claim to being a truly great band, because you’ll be sobbing inside, more with every line. This level of obviousness is fascinating for a band that until Meadowlands never wrote a line that could only be interpreted one way, and the Wrens don’t overdo it, only reaching the same level of forwardness of “Happy” once or twice throughout the rest of the album.

Whereas the nineteen songs and top-heavy tracklisting of Secaucus often left the songs at the end forgotten and even worse, somewhat redundant, Meadowlands and its thirteen tracks allow each song to be appreciated individually. And these songs are highly worthy of being appreciated. The word of the day here, of course, is heartbreaking—whether the tone is bitter (“Everyone Choose Sides,”) nostalgic (“Ex-Girl Collection,”) defeated (“Hopeless,”) or all three (“13 Months in 6 Minutes”) each song works its own powerful and distinct spell on you and your memory associations of love-as-pain. There are no real highlights, because having highlights would imply that there are low points on the album.

I lied. There are two highlights, two parts of the album that manage to stand out from the rest, two moments that you are likely to remember long after the rest of Meadowlands has faded. One is the previously mentioned “Happy.” The other is at the 1:10 mark of closer “This Is Not What You Had Planned,” no more than a half-minute before the end of the album.

Something isn’t just quite how you planned
Something isn’t just like every stand
This is not what you had planned

It’s just lead Wrens vocalist Charles Mexico (I think—Wrens liner notes, while essential for complete enjoyment of the album due to their printing of the frequently incomprehensible lyrics, stubbornly refuse to list positions) clumsily plunking at a piano, (drunk?) and bawling after the six minute Grande Finale, “13 Months in 6 Minutes”.

But baby don’t you even know what’s right
This is not what you had planned

Even when you’re expecting it you’re not really expecting it. It is that intense—as chilling as “Happy” was stunning. It’s an absolutely amazing way to finish the album.

With about twenty killer lines or couplets per song, unexpected hooks coming from everywhere and one of the most ingenious track sequences of the year, it’s not really so hard to imagine what The Wrens have been doing all this time. They’ve divided their time equally between writing mine or hers on boxes full of CDs, photographs, linen and other sentimental junk—and writing, performing and producing a 13-track masterpiece about it.
Reviewed by: Andrew Unterberger
Reviewed on: 2003-09-16
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