The Basement Tapes

The Wrens: Four working stiffs shack up to make the greatest rock record of recent times

Since as early as 1989, when their fledgling cover band was offered its first gig warming up for the Fixx, the Wrens thought they were destined for stardom. And for nearly as long--say, beginning when the Fixx backed out and the show was canceled--their dreams have evaded them.

The story: Brothers Greg and Kevin Whelan have known pals Charles Bissell and Jerry MacDonald forever. They decide to start a band. A growing buzz surrounds their early discs in 1994 and 1996, but after being courted by major label suitors and a million-dollar multi-album deal, the four Messrs. Wren chuck the money and run. Refusing to renegotiate their contract, the band get dropped by their label, Grass Records (which subsequently discovers and grows profanely rich off Creed), and hunker down in a shared home in suburban New Jersey. Gigs come with less and less frequency. They commute five days a week to work in Manhattan, first as temps, then to real jobs--with real cubicles--in advertising (Bissell), pharmaceuticals (the Whelans), and sales (MacDonald).

So now that we've got this whole rock stardom thing down, do you think we can start discussing our 401K plans? The Wrens
Courtesy of Nasty Little Man
So now that we've got this whole rock stardom thing down, do you think we can start discussing our 401K plans? The Wrens

On nights and weekends they work on music, jamming in the dining room or tracking in the basement. It takes four solid years of overdubs, rewrites, and revisions--not to mention several label dalliances--to finish their third album, The Meadowlands. In July 2003, the band celebrate their work at a local bar, to which they've brought along a tape machine; they set it up, raise a glass, and erase the masters. In September, the tiny indie imprint Absolutely Kosher releases the album. The reception is rapturous.

This tale scratches the same working-schlub-turned-star itch that's been a music industry staple since long before John Prine was delivering mail, Jack Logan was repairing swimming pool motors, or Ruben Studdard was doing whatever he did before he was Idolized. Typically, unapproachable celebrities are humanized by our visions of their grunt work. But the Wrens' saga works a different cliché: the troubled outsider in the cubicle next to you--the guy who comes to mind whenever someone says He was quiet, kept to himself. No one dreamed he had those bodies in his basement. Except the only thing the Wrens had hidden was the one of the best rock records in recent memory.

The band's unlikely bio attracted mainstream ink--including a New York Times feature on the eve of the album's release--but the big splash happened on the internet. There, among the rabble of blogs and webzines that now function much like college radio did in priming the '80s Amerindie explosion, the Wrens were greeted as gods. PitchforkMedia.com, the leader of the digital underground's press pack, deemed The Meadowlands a "magnum opus" in a 1,300-word review. In this foursome of frustrated desk jockeys, bloggers and webzine scribes probably saw themselves: artists who pay the bills by pouring lattes or ringing cash registers or shuffling papers under fluorescent lights. Joe Pernice--another webzine fave--once described this lifestyle in a song, claiming that the only ways out were "suicide or a graduate degree." Faced with the same grow-up-or-give-up trap, the Wrens found a third way.

It's difficult to divorce The Meadowlands from those circumstances, as most of the songs grapple explicitly with the band's disappointments in life, art, and the biz. (The disc's delicately sung opening track, "The House That Guilt Built," features the lyrics, "I'm nowhere near where I dreamed I'd be/I can't believe what life's done to me," and its closer is an improvised bit of drunken catharsis called "This Is Not What You Had Planned.") But rock 'n' roll isn't played on paper, and The Meadowlands only succeeds because its sound--which recalls doomed classics, like the Beach Boys' Smile, that never made it out of the studio, and two decades of indie rock that never broke--so brilliantly advances its subject. I played the album for months before I noticed the oft-cited line "I've walked away from more than you imagine/I sleep just fine," buried under the ringing layers of "Everyone Chooses Sides." I guess I was too busy listening to those layers--of guitars, vocals, keys, and other sounds--to hang on every word.

I still love those layers: How they build and burst in the swirling pop of "This Boy Is Exhausted." How twin vocals mesh and tangle over the sparkling guitars of "Ex-Girl Collection." How they trace melodic spirals in "She Sends Kisses" and drop suddenly into silence at the end of "Per Second Second." I'm drawn to The Meadowlands by the band's passion and by its weariness. I like its fragile harmonies and its ragged eruptions of pure noise. I'm transfixed by the bedroom confession "13 Months in Six Minutes," by the slide guitar that mimics Charles Bissell's vocal melody, by the coda that nods to "California Dreamin'," and elsewhere, by Bissell's description of how an album can raise the ghost of a girl who's gone: "I put your favorite record in/And sit around, it spins around/And you're around again."

Most of all, though, I'm drawn to the album's sense of satisfaction, which has nothing to do with Mick Jagger. It's the sound of finding a tenuous peace with who you are, what you want, what you make, and what you do--even after you realize that your biggest audience might be your basement walls.

 
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