The Wrens: Street Hassle

“Dear MAGNET readers,” says Charles Bissell, “some of us could have sired some of you.”

Wrens guitarist Bissell is having some fun at the expense of his and his bandmates’ age, which averages 36. But given the seven-year break between the New Jersey quartet’s last album and its latest, The Meadowlands, the younger generation might want an answer from these absentee parents of pop/punk: What the hell have you guys been doing all this time?

Peals of laughter respond to that question during a 6-10 p.m. “happy hour” at a Lower East Side bar where the Wrens—Bissell, brothers Kevin (bass) and Greg Whelan (guitar) and Jerry MacDonnell (drums)—have gathered after their responsible corporate workdays to relate one of the most ludicrous part-one tragicomedies in the history of music.

After graduating from its covers-band status on a Cape May, N.J., ferryboat (the Wrens were fired after playing the Pixies’ “Debaser” to elderly vacationers), the group signed with indie Grass Records and issued two critically acclaimed albums. 1994’s Silver and 1996’s Secaucus forecast a brilliant career for a band that could pen caffeinated, spiky pop tunes and pull off complex vocal harmonies (all members sing).

But label woes (Grass’ ownership changed hands; the Wrens refused to sign a long-term deal; Grass became the imprint that birthed Creed) wrecked the band’s arc of success and resulted in years of music-biz limbo. For much of 1998, the Wrens hunkered down in their shared house/ recording studio in Secaucus, N.J., and attempted to write an album that would please the suits at prospective major labels.

“It was kind of surreal,” says Bissell. “[A&R guys] would drive up to the house in a limo, leave the driver outside and come into the house and listen to the demos … We’d give him a DAT tape, and we’d talk to him on Thursday. He’d say, ‘No thanks,’ and then we’d do it all over again.”

One such label scout, Interscope’s Steve Ralbovsky (“We name names now,” says Kevin. “We don’t give a shit.”), is the target of The Meadowlands track “This Boy Is Exhausted.” The Wrens played an early version of the song—with the same lyrics of “I can’t tell/A hit from hell”—for Ralbovsky in his office five years ago.

“[Ralbovsky’s] assistant kept looking at me like, ‘What are you guys doing?’” says Greg. “When we came out of that meeting, she pulled me aside and said, ‘You just wrote that song about him, didn’t you?’ He never picked up on it.”

Ralbovsky would go on to sign the Strokes for RCA. The Wrens would move on, too, giving up the chase of the big record deal and running down their own dream album instead. Permanent jobs were secured and MacDonnell started a family, but nights and weekends were spent writing and recording at the Secaucus house.

“We’ve given up a lot, just as far as normalcy goes,” says Bissell. “We’re in our 30s and [three of us] still live together in a house—we’re like a sitcom … In retrospect, the key was literally [Ralbovsky] saying, ‘I don’t hear a hit’—the cliché you always hear.”

Worth the wait and then some, The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher) is a triumphant, detailed song cycle about four guys in a band experiencing heartbreak and the slow crush of life in New Jersey. “We’re from a different part of New Jersey than Bon Jovi,” quips Bissell, but the Wrens evoke the same themes that made that band—as well as its superior, Springsteen—endearing: suburban stasis and the everyman’s lot. Slow-building Meadowlands track “She Sends Kisses” is an exacting portrait of a down-the-shore summer romance crumbling in the fall: “Hopes pinned to poses honed in men’s-room mirrors/A sophomore at Brown/She worked Lost & Found/I put your face on her all year.” Guitar/voice/ cricket-sounds opener “The House That Guilt Built” (“I’m nowhere near/What I dreamed I’d be”) sets the tone for an album about life’s little defeats.

As it was 1996 when Oasis bragged of its own victories, MAGNET urges a Gallagher-like proclamation about the Wrens’ return to the rock ‘n’ roll arena. Bissell obliges: “We’re gonna show the Soup Dragons what’s what! That new My Bloody Valentine record isn’t so happenin’.”

It wouldn’t be too hyperbolic to tag The Meadowlands as the comeback album of the year, but it wouldn’t be right. The Wrens have never sounded this good.

“Some people will say, ‘This is all you did? Where were you all this time?’” says Kevin. “But they’ll never realize that we never stopped. We were there every night.”

—Matthew Fritch