People indulge in a lot of handwringing about the state of the music industry these days, decrying the impossibility of earning a living from being
in a band. And yes, compared to the latter part of the twentieth century, when second-tier Britpop acts were given tens of thousands to make
forgettable music videos, the pittance available from today’s streaming services and the rising cost of touring can make it seems as if only Coldplay
or Mumford & Sons can build a ‘career’ from their endeavours anymore.
But this kind of rose-tinted view overlooks other practices in the past, when the industry dictated who could earn a living from their music, and a
major label deal was the Holy Grail for young gunslingers with guitars. In those times back before crowdfunding and Bandcamp, when groups rarely
set up their own labels to release music across a democratised marketplace, corporate treatment of ‘the talent’ was often less than ideal.
The Wrens are a particularly horrendous case in point. As you can see on their website biography, the mistreatment this band suffered still rankles, two decades on. The indie-rock quartet
came together around 1989/90, the four of them sharing a house in Secaucus, New Jersey throughout the 1990s. Made up of frontman and guitar player Charles Bissell, brothers Greg and
Kevin Whelan on second guitar and bass respectively and drummer Jerry MacDonald, their vocals were split between Bissell and Kevin Whelan and The Wrens signed to Grass Records on
the back of an independently released 7-inch they put out in 1993.
The following year debut long-player ‘Silver’ would be released, showcasing their plethora of ideas and nascent songwriting skills, although the strengths were somewhat underscored by murky production and an obvious Pixies influence, one that would take a while for the band to shake off.
Still, the record received critical acclaim and The Wrens were able to keep going as a full-time concern, living cheaply as they did. Come 1996 and the band would release their
expansive and thrilling sophomore effort ‘Secaucus’, inspired by life in their tiny hometown. It was a kind of concept album about people and the paths they can choose; growing
up apart from the centre of things. ‘Secaucus’ boasts nineteen songs in fifty-four minutes, ranging from the melodic and catchy to bouts of squalling noise, unconventional vocal
harmonies and brooding interludes, a developing sound specific to The Wrens and one American reviewers would go into raptures for.
‘Secaucus’ seemed to pave the way for success; the story of a band on the up, pushing their music onto the larger audience it deserved,
their fanbase growing across the United States. But partway through the tour in support of this album, Grass Records would be bought by
Allan Meltzer, later described by the band as an “insane grudge-bearing millionaire” and someone who, on his death in 2011, left an
immense personal fortune to his doorman and personal chauffeur.
It’s safe to say this guy wasn’t a people person. Meltzer took one look at the talent available to him (perhaps he even gave a few songs the most cursory of listens) and
decided to offer the Wrens a take-it-or-leave-it contract. A million dollars would be theirs if the band agreed to make their songs more ‘radio friendly’; in essence, to water
down what they did. Which would mean going against their artistic instincts and betraying the band's musical integrity in a way supposed ‘sell-outs’ of that era like Nirvana
or Pearl Jam never really did.
Unsurprisingly The Wrens refused, so Meltzer pulled the plug on their tour finance, which meant cancelled dates and the collapse of their scheduled visit to Europe. The band were dropped like the proverbial stone, ‘Secaucus’ never reached the audience it deserved and all momentum was destroyed. As the band cast around for representation its members would be forced into day jobs while, in the twenty years since, they’ve managed a grand total of one more LP - 2003’s plaintive opus ‘The Meadowlands’.
In the meantime The Wrens became the cult band’s cult band, an elusive, semi-legendary presence. Much of that is down to ‘Secaucus’, a tremendous record which
received an 8.6 rating on Pitchfork when it was finally reissued in 2006, the website writer observing, quite rightly, that this was “the only document of the band where
they don't somehow sound hesitant”.
Instead, it’s an assured and thrilling listen, one that somehow manages to both sprawl and remain tightly focussed. Discordant opener ‘Yellow Number Three’ storms
in with prominent drums and the singers harmonising against each other, a trick they would repeat a number of times throughout. This is followed by power pop classic
‘Built In Girls’, depicting a certain type of New Jersey woman obsessed with her appearance, one that has “measured out [their] life in lipstick and lashes”, boasting
an ability to “act like you care” with the music moving to a grandstanding guitar breakdown.
‘Surprise Honeycomb’ employs a trick The Wrens pull off repeatedly on this LP; a combination of upbeat music with lyrics exploring the dark side of small-town America.
Here the subject is that perennial US issue, the proliferation of guns, a parallel drawn between the violence of the Old West and now. Later lyrics will also cover the
dislocation and fear of being up on-stage in the speedy ‘Rest Your Head’ (“I’m breathing out loud to pretend I’m alive, while strangers throw flowers”), the absence of religion
as a consolation in the distorted, brooding ‘Luxury’ (“God is a luxury that I can’t afford”) and the soul-destroying nature of suburbia; those lies told behind closed doors
through hurtling pop epic ‘Joneses Rule of Sport’ (“the wife, six kids… and the mistress Tuesday night… welcome to your life.”).
These themes, of people enmeshed in the unhappiness of a small town and dreaming of escape, they recur throughout the record. Even though the band were only in their
mid-twenties at the time, there’s a real sense of disillusionment, a jaded quality playing out during the mid-pace ‘I’ve Made Enough Friends’ with its narrator reacting in a
hostile fashion to the platonic suggestion when his lustful inclinations are declined. Then comes the brooding ‘Safe and Comfortable’, delving into love and jealousy, or the
conformist car-obsession of ‘Indie 500’, with its raucous piano fills and chanted lyrics, the singer giving in to conformity simply because it’s easier: “Alright, alright, I'll
dress the same.”
It’s an unspoken pressure to fit in, feeling the tradition that weighs down on a young man’s mind in such a suffocating place, one we hear of again and again. A single
institution became a particular focus through ‘Secaucus’ too, there in the brooding, musically sparse exploration of a relationship devolving into horror that is ‘Still
Complaining’, the couple who: “out of boredom they married one sun spoiled day, accelerated to murder while blaming each other along the way”.
That song is followed by the energetic irony of ‘Hats Off to Marriage, Baby’, coming in on static and feedback before a choppy riff rises to accompany the best vocal
performance here, invigorating music and cynical lyrics about ownership and abuse, inspired by the behaviour of neighbourhood husbands and wives: “I’m your woman,
shave me, ball me, for your pleasure…” Finally ‘I Married Sonja’ repeats this trick, a memorable melody bouncing along before ending in a squall once the band have
depicted "bachelor uncles [turning] into marrying men".
It’s true that, on the few occasions when the pace drops, like instrumental soundscape ‘I’ll Mind You’ or the sombre, falsetto-inflected ‘Jane Fakes a Hug’ or downbeat,
whispered strummer ‘Won’t Get Too Far’, the record loses its thrust somewhat. But we’re never more than a couple of minutes from another blast of thrilling guitar pop, whether
that means ‘Counted on Sweetness’ blasting in or tremendous finale ‘It’s Not Getting Any Good’, the latter providing ‘Secaucus’ with a fitting finale. Here R.E.M.-a-like backing
vocals push the countervailing melody as jittery guitars and an undeniable tune once more inspire dancing and air guitar, even as the underlying sentiment remains bittersweet.
The idea it wasn’t getting any good for the band turned out to be a shrewd prophecy, as I mentioned earlier. Although their most recent record
(also named after that area where they grew up and - mostly - lived out their lives) ‘The Meadowlands’ is a real grower, wonderfully sequenced
and absolutely worth a listen, the band would never again chomp at the bit with so many ideas and a kind of scorched-earth musical idealism.
Record company problems put paid to their confidence and precipitated a move to becoming part-time, occasional artists. This wasn’t good for The Wrens’ musical productivity, even as
they continued to be assailed by bad luck. A fourth album is apparently recorded and has been promised for a couple of years, but through 2015 and 2016 everything was delayed again
by Charles Bissell’s lengthy hospital stay as the frontman received treatment for pneumonia. Bissell was then discovered to have a non-lethal form of cancer that attacks plasma cells in
the bone marrow.
Best wishes Charles, and let’s hope you and the rest of the band are up and running again soon; ready to re-activate one of the most underrated groups on the
planet. Because adversity can sometimes break people, but it also increases the determination and changes their art in ways no one could have foreseen, usually for
the better. I’m looking forward to the latest release by a band whose music is now accessible to everyone via streaming platforms. The way the industry has evolved
may have hit the pockets of some professional players, but it also removed the ability of crackpot moguls to destroy idiosyncratic songwriters, so maybe everything isn’t
so bad these days.
Secaucus is available digitally from all the usual outlets. Physical copies of the record can be prohibitively expensive, but there are bargains on used CDs and vinyl if you
know where to look.