Whether recorded here, inspired here, or created by one of our native-born artists, The Great NJ Albums takes a fan’s perspective and reflects on some of the best and most unique records from our very own Garden State.
I had spent the previous seventeen years in and out of a classroom, and now it was time for the world to see what Brian Erickson could bring to it. With a college degree rumpled up in the trunk of my car and the suffocating student loans to prove it, I was living at home full-time for the first time in four years. As I watched my peers find remarkable success in a variety of fields early on, my own life felt underwhelming by a considerable margin. I wanted to be part of something. And I wanted to be one of the reasons it was “something” to begin with.
To trick myself into thinking I was using my degree, I scored a job at a local Top 40 radio station. My sole regret is that there aren’t more adjectives express just how deplorable that place was. Often I find undesirable moments in life lead to fulfilling ventures if we just connect the dots: a network contact, a new friend, a romance, a job, an experience. My time at this place remains a dead-end. I met no one and gained nothing, only seeking to reinforce that I was making all the wrong decisions.
My sister was still in high school and used no caution when reminding me just how deep into a hole my life was sinking. She was a scene kid who came up during the burgeoning Fourth Wave emo movement of the early/mid 2000s. Bands like Taking Back Sunday and Brand New – who were from our area – took over MTV. While she became obsessed, I considered these groups infantile; whiny, even. But she started coming home with other albums too; Built to Spill, Neutral Milk Hotel, Pixies, and – yes – The Wrens. Evidently Brand New’s Jesse Lacey fancied himself a tastemaker and would often talk about or even cover his favorites in concert. My sister would see this and seek out the source LP’s. So while I never got into Brand New, I need to pay them due respect because The Wrens continue to see me through those moments of profound confusion where I look around at this beautiful mess and think, “How the fuck did I get here?”
The Wrens’ History:
Founded in Southern NJ as Low in the late 80s, the quartet of Charles Bissell (vocals/guitar), Kevin (vocals/bass) and Greg Whelan (guitar), and Jerry MacDonald (drums) rechristened themselves The Wrens after longtime slowcore band Low threatened to run their shorts up the indie rock flagpole.
The Wrens released a series of early 7” singles and on the strength of raucous live shows and exhaustive touring, a deal with Grass Records was signed. Legend has it that one of the members was interning at Arista and – in a move that can only be described as “genius” – used company letterhead to correspond with labels, A&R reps, and other music biz types. Historical Note: Arista found out and terminated said member’s internship.
After moving into a house in Fort Lee and fashioning a home studio, The Wrens released the scattered, shoegazy Silver in 1994 which – spanning 23 tracks over 71 minutes – revealed an enormously talented, ambitious band still finding its footing on record. 1996’s Secaucus would right the ship by a considerable margin as “critical riches” (to use the band’s words) began finding The Wrens in spades. Then they hit pay dirt…or so they thought.
Grass Records was bought out by wealthy businessman Alan Meltzer who offered the band a contract in excess of $1 million. Meltzer wanted to turn his label into something more commercially viable and The Wrens were to be a flagship artist. Realizing, however, that this move was coming at the cost of their upward artistic trajectory, the band ultimately balked at the new deal. Grass Records – now rebranded as Wind-Up – cancelled all Wrens-related activity, leaving them stranded on the road mid-tour with an empty gas tank and no money. Meanwhile, Wind-Up became one of the biggest-selling hard rock labels in the world, signing Seether, Finger Eleven, Evanescence, and Creed. To add insult to injury, Wind-Up retained the rights to Silver and Secaucus and immediately pulled them from circulation. With no label, no tour, no support and now no album, The Wrens were thoroughly and completely defeated; their very existence having near-forcibly been erased.
Legend purports that the band went dark, but that’s not completely true. In actuality, they released a pair of EP’s – Abbott 1135 in 1997, and a split with indie pop jokesters Five Mod Four in 2001 – and landed a couple future Meadowlands tracks on a Drive-Thru Records compilation. But compilation tracks and split EP’s don’t pay the bills and one by one, the band members began seeking work elsewhere.
Having gotten married, MacDonald was the first to leave the Fort Lee house, moving to Philadelphia to settle down and work in finance. The Whelan brothers remained in Jersey but got the type of adult jobs (pharmaceuticals) that you get when being in a band was just a thing you did when you were younger. Meanwhile, Bissell moved to Brooklyn and kicked around doing the musical equivalent of odd jobs: an engineering gig here, a brief association with Okkervill River there, the occasional solo show, teaching guitar lessons.
As detached as the members were becoming from their all-for-one mentality, it turns out there was an album lurking underneath the whole time. Even though they no longer had the type of big-label support that could help them break through, The Wrens retained arguably every band’s two most important assets: their deep sense of resolve and their recording studio.
The Meadowlands opens with “The House That Guilt Built,” a sort-of State of the Union as Bissell sings “It’s been so long / since you’ve heard from me.” It goes on to say “I’m nowhere near where I dreamed I’d be / I can’t believe what life’s done to me.” It’s a lullaby to all the soon-to-be millennials whose lofty expectations get cut down before the starting gun even goes off. While this song may seem minor right now, it plays hugely into the overall theme of the record later. And for me, personally, as a rudderless 22 year old who couldn’t understand where life was taking him, it meant the world.
“The House That Guilt Built” fades into “Happy,” the first song I heard off The Meadowlands and a longtime favorite. We’re introduced to Kevin Whelan’s high tenor and vitriol: “Your lies to me / Won’t win again / So don’t kid yourself” before tearing into a maniacally-euphoric, Pixies-courting coda.
Bissell once again takes the mic for “She Sends Kisses,” matching Whelan’s emotionally acrobatic “Happy” blow-for-blow. When I first heard The Meadowlands this was the one I skipped to get to the faster songs. But now a decade older, it’s a sad reminder of how foolish it is to expect anything from anyone; especially in and around relationships. It’s also at this point you realize The Wrens have some of the best lyrics in the game; they sing well and read great on the page: “She sends kisses/ But I’m corrupt / I wrote back ‘good luck’.”
“This Boy Is Exhausted” opens with a fanfare – a trumpet-like blending of Bissell and Whelan’s falsetto vocals – and then lays bare the band’s 2003 manifesto in plain English: “I can’t type / I can’t temp / I’m way past college / No ways out / No backdoors / Not anymore.” Their prime now passed, they’re stuck between what they want to do and what they feel they have to. However you want to classify those feelings, it’s something that a certain type of person – the kind who feels they always have more in them – begins to face at a certain age. Perhaps having abandoned the idea that it might mean something to others, you begin questioning how valuable the pursuit of your dreams is to yourself. “But then once in a while / We’ll play a show / Then it makes it all worthwhile.” Hope remains the Devil’s dance partner.
Whelan chimes in again with “Hopeless,” and the more I listen to it, the more I suspect he’s not speaking to someone so much as he’s reflecting on something someone was telling him. “I should have listened to them / Go thank yourself for nothing / It’s really all you’re good for / And every year you’ve wasted / And every half-assed offer.” But just as The Wrens are wiping the blood from their eyes after having that soul-crushing screed carved out on their foreheads, a dark euphoria breaks through as they repeat a blissful, harmonized “okay!” ad nauseum until the song fades out. It is perhaps the album’s brightest moment, but once again it comes at the expense of another failed relationship.
The Meadowlands continues to play like a violent knife fight between depressive regret and a fervent desire for salvation of almost any kind. This is where tracks like “Faster Gun,” with its upward-moving fuzz bass, and “Per Second Second” and its millennial James Bond shuffle come from. Elsewhere, “Thirteen Grand” checks in with reality, “I thought I had it all figured out / But look who got it wrong,” and “Ex-Girl Collection” offers up uncomfortable recollection of past companionship over a vaguely classical guitar line. Lyrics like “She poured herself a don’t-ask gin,” “Charles, I found out / I think it’s tell-me time,” “Is this how men mark time in couples / She cursed / This sounds so rehearsed,” make me want to Ctrl-A + Delete this whole thing and just reprint the album’s lyrics en masse.
But just as I’m squirming in my Sennheiser’s listening to Bissell recount his failures as a boyfriend, a band member, a companion, and a man, Whelan tags in. Over the album’s most dour piece of music, he finally brings us the sweet moment of salvation we’ve been looking for. He sings like a busted up prizefighter on his last legs, “Don’t know what you got on me / And even then, just you wait and see,” sweat, blood, and resolve just pouring through the headphones. “I stood up / Dead off of the ground / But I stood up / To face another round.” When coupled with the angular stab of Bissell and Greg Whelan’s guitars, they lift the words off the page and into the ionosphere. The album delivers the message that life is going to throw some pretty awful things your way. And you’re not going to be able to dodge even most of it. But so long as you stand up “to face another round” you’ll get through it. This all accomplished in the most un-cliché way, of course.
“Everyone Choose Sides” recounts the Meltzer ordeal with the Wrens doubting themselves, but coming out on top “I’ve walked away from more than you imagine / And I sleep just fine.” “13 Months In 6 Minutes” finds Bissell exorcizing his “Ex-Girl” demons once and for all by being honest with himself “Your 20’s all mapped out / I’m in my driest drought” and later, “I’m a footnote at best / I envy who comes next.” It feels like he’s going back to wrap it all up; to accept what happened. Sometimes we need to put ourselves in that place to move on properly.
Bookended against opener, “The House That Guilt Built,” “This is Not What You Had Planned” proves the ideal closer. In just a minute-and-a-half, Whelan deliver’s indie rock’s finest lounge song: “Something isn’t just like it ever seemed / But, babe, got to have something, something right / This is not what you had planned.” Not outright and cliché but more accepting in its reservations, it’s an ending of grizzled, worldly reassurance. It reiterates John Lennon’s famous “Life is what happens to you / When you’re busy making other plans.” Sure, this isn’t how you thought things would turn out, but you’re alive. And what’s better is that you find out age doesn’t matter. It’s your attitude, your stick-to-it-iveness, and your ability to adapt that makes you valuable. By the end of The Meadowlands, The Wrens aren’t just back, they’re downright vital!
What Makes It Great:
For me, The Meadowlands arrived at the perfect time; like the older sibling I never had telling me that great things can and often do come at our darkest moments. It was the type of advice that would guide me through a lot of tough moments: losing my father in 2007 and one of my dearest friends just four years later. It’s the kind that has gotten me through existence-questioning breakups, through family-decimating disagreements, through moments of fantastic difficulty and extreme pressure. The only thing time has done to The Meadowlands is strengthen its impact.
The Wrens proved that – if left to their own devices – they were fully capable of making one of the 21st century’s most unimpeachably great albums. It’s a key reason I derive such joy from music-listening. Because while The Wrens are smart, they’re not acclaimed studio geniuses like Wilson or Lennon and McCartney or canonized songwriting masters like King, Mitchell, or Nyro. They make it possible for “regular people” to believe that they are capable of incredible achievements; of moments that can capture our imagination and still manage to hold it hostage decades later.
The Meadowlands is evergreen. It is the kind of album every band hopes to make, one that touches on universal truths, speaks directly to its audience in a multitude of complex ways, and will long outlive its creators. And The Wrens aren’t just a band. They’re a guitar teacher, a financial director, and two pharmaceutical big wigs. They’re four friends; four brothers from the old neighborhood. The Wrens are just like us; they’re human. They’ve been screwed over; treated unfairly. As opposed to the “just like us” theme from Nebraska, The Wrens did keep going. They found the way by making their own way.
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