The Wrens

The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher ’03) Rating: A-
The Wrens story is a peculiar one. After releasing two indie rock albums, Silver (1994) and Secaucus (1996), the band ran into record company troubles when they felt that their artistic integrity was being threatened. That took three years to sort out, after which they labored for four more years trying to get this third album “just right.” Well, they didn’t get everything just right, but their many late nights and busy weekends spent recording in the quartet’s living room (the band records in their own home that they share) has paid off, for The Meadowlands is a spectacular story of perseverance that's arguably the indie rock album of the year. The band paid a price, too, which is obvious in their often heartbroken, worldly lyrics (examples: “I’m nowhere near what I dreamed I’d be, I can’t believe what life has done to me”; “I walked away from more than you imagine, and I sleep just fine”), which read like diary entries and which are at times painfully honest. So call this an “emo” record if you must, but if more emo records were this good you can rest assured that that genre wouldn’t be so critically maligned. Besides, The Wrens are far more than just an emo band, many times recalling other highly respectable bands. The band’s extremely melodic but slightly off kilter guitars and high pitched, keening vocals at times recall kindred spirits such as Built To Spill or Modest Mouse, while several naggingly catchy power pop songs with lots going on recall the likes of The New Pornographers, Fountains Of Wayne, and even The Strokes. There’s even a sad, dusty ballad that I might expect from a “No Depression” group, one song has a descending, dirge-like riff and an overall moodiness that recalls Grandaddy or Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips, and there’s even an airy, lushly orchestrated soft rock ballad that could’ve been done by any number of ‘70s bands. Of course, I’m generalizing with these comparisons, and besides, when you throw all these influences together and add the band’s own personal touches divided among four talented singers and songwriters (predictably, their harmonies are highlights and it’s also not uncommon for the band to feature multiple lead vocalists), what you have is simply The Wrens, whose album here isn’t without flaws. Primarily, as is often the case these days, this album ends much weaker than it begins, and as such a couple of songs towards the back end probably could’ve been cut. Fortunately, the band’s accomplished songwriting (obviously indie yet accessible) and impassioned performances (see the “I was wrong...” climax on “Happy” for a shining example) makes this album a big winner despite its flaws, as The Meadowlands is a sincere, angst-filled (but curiously uplifting), emotionally affecting album with a lot of heart.

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