April 29, 2003

Wrens take flight by transcending emo clichés

As far as critically-reviled genres go, emo comes close to topping the list. If pressed, most critics defend their position by claiming that the genre does nothing but promote banal emoting played over pedestrian arrangements. While the actual content of emo is certainly part of the reason that critics find it so repellent, I suspect that a bigger part of the problem lies with the genre's roots, which date back to the late 80s in Washington, D.C. Most credit Rites of Spring and Ian MacKaye's short-lived side project Embrace with birthing the basic emo template. Both of those bands were a part of the extended Dischord family, the label founded by MacKaye, and consequently, their sound owed a heavy debt to the hardcore din of label-mates Minor Threat and Fugazi. It was with the former pioneering hardcore band that MacKaye composed the song "Straight Edge," spawning an entire generation of punks who renounced drink and drugs; and it was while fronting the latter that he spouted the famous line, "you are not what you own."

Needless to say, emo posterboys Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional, in providing the soundtrack for countless frat houses and shopping malls across the country, are far removed from any of those sentiments. Critics must surely find it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile emo's staunchly anti-consumerist ancestry with the commercial juggernaut it has become.

The Wrens make unmistakably emo music, but they're not an emo band, per se, which may be their saving grace. The group--comprised of four guys who live together in the New Jersey suburbs--has technically been in existence since 1989, even though they only have three full-length albums to show for it. As you might imagine, The Wrens have gone through several phases over the years.

The first two albums were both put out by Grass Records (which, oddly enough, would later become Wind-Up), but they couldn't be more different in style and substance. The first album, Silver, was a rather strange stab at shoegazing, which had fallen out of favor by the time the album was released in 1994. But The Wrens' take on the detached form was noticeably devoid of the thick haze representative of their British forebearers, resulting in what is perhaps best described as soft-focus pop songs.

The follow-up arrived two years later and boasted a fuller, more direct approach. Seacaucus cleared away the mist, accentuating the sticky pop centers with jagged, angular guitars emphasizing hooks over total sound. The band reinterpreted the finely-aged post-punk of Wire and skillfully incorporated Weezer's sun-kissed melodies. Yet, like Silver, Seacaucus suffered from being too generous. Although three songs shorter than its predecessor, Seacaucus still packed 19 tracks. Moments of sheer genius abounded--"Built In Girls" was and remains a colossal power-pop achievement--but it's hard to deny that the ideas were stretched a bit too thin.

The Wrens' latest, The Meadowlands (released by the Berkeley-based indie Absolutely Kosher), has endured a considerably longer gestation period than Seacaucus--almost 7 years. Some undoubtedly feared the band would pull a My Bloody Valentine, promising an album that never materialized. That it has appeared at all certainly comes as surprise, but the real shock is how good it is. The Meadowlands is as much a departure from Seacaucus as that album was from Silver. Rather than going for an ADHD aesthetic by rushing headlong through a slew of loosely sketched songs, The Wrens exercise a remarkable degree of restraint. Tracks here are allowed to breath and build, qualities that would have been anathema to the band that whipped-up the first two records. Songs like "Happy" and "Faster Gun" showcase The Wrens' diversification and maturity, touching on the spooky effects of Modest Mouse, and the off-kilter guitar heroics of Built to Spill, without a hint of affectation. It's the sort of natural, organic growth that impresses without even meaning to.

While the sound of the record is fairly eclectic, it's the self-obsessed, woe-is-me lyric sheet that really gives the album away as emo. "Hopeless," arguably The Meadowlands' highlight, starts with the lines, "not this time too / I'm the only one you got to use / and if I tell you all this could be / nothing more than a way to leave you / would you want me?" It's almost too easy to imagine Chris Carraba of Dashboard Confessional belting out those lines in his trademark man-child yelp, but The Wrens never let the lyrics overwhelm the arrangements, a regrettably frequent occurrence on many emo albums. The lone exception is the horrendous ballad "She Sends Kisses," where emo's bathetic excess rears its ugly head for six interminable minutes.

Part of the problem with emo has always been its uneasy relationship with hardcore. There was never a clean break. Witness the current crop of bands playing pop songs to audiences on TRL, yet still desperately and laughably clinging to punk credibility. There's no such tension on The Meadowlands, mainly because The Wrens have no longstanding ties to that community, or any community for that matter. They're outsiders in the truest sense of the term, and it is precisely this status that gives them the ability to revive a genre that has been so mired in formula and tradition. The Wrens bring their collective history and experience to bear by importing ideas from other sources, whether it's the skewed indie-pop grafted onto "Ex-girl Collection," or the acid-tinged psychedelia underpinning "Per Second Second." But unlike the overstuffed Silver or Seacaucus, The Meadowlands manages to reveal the expanse of The Wrens' vision without trading on their intimate charms. Innovation should always be so easy.

The Meadowlands is not available in stores until September, but a special limited edition of the album with four bonus tracks is currently being sold and shipped through the Absolutely Kosher Web site.