Kids like us, baby

The Wrens just keep plugging away at their ongoing elegy to New Jersey.

by Keri Carlson

It’s been so long/ since you heard from me/ got a wife and kid/ that I never see/ and I’m nowhere near/ what I dreamed I’d be/ I can’t believe/ what life has done to me.” So begins The Wrens’ third full-length album “The Meadowlands.”

The band put out two critically acclaimed albums, one in 1994 and the other in 1996. They’re known for their infectious pop-punk melodies that swerve far from a mainstream path into complicated hooks and lyrics that are as poetic as they are gritty. Often singing about their native New Jersey, The Wrens captured a small but devoted following among college radio listeners in the mid-1990s. After their 1996 album “Secaucus,” the band put out a couple of EPs but basically remained hidden for seven years.

“We were actually working the entire time,” guitarist Greg Whelan said. Much of the delay was due to “playing the major label game.”

“It’s pretty typical any time you’re dealing with labels. It’s a horror story,” Whelan said. “It’s not as bad as it appears. There were dark times we all went through, but we wouldn’t have made the album we ended up making. We realized it’s about making good music.”

Even when The Wrens were toying with bigger labels that had more money to put behind their record, these labels seemed unwilling to promote the album and did not think press was important. Absurd, considering that The Wrens were critical darlings.

The band always joked with their friend Cory Brown that they would put out a record on his label, Absolutely Kosher Records. Brown’s small, independent label grew into quite an important, well-functioning indie – with a solid roster that includes Frog Eyes, Optiganally Yours, The Swords Project and The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up.

Absolutely Kosher, Whelan said, “was the best thing for the record.” “The Meadowlands” came out on Absolutely Kosher in September and quickly became The Wrens’ most successful record.

The Wrens have made the wait for a new record worthwhile. The lyrics reflect on lost love and how things used to be when the band was growing up. But it’s the sense of failure they reveal along with working-class preoccupations that make these songs intriguingly beautiful. “This Boy is Exhausted” cries “Lock me in/ tied to work/ splitting rock/ cutting diamonds/ 100 days/ with no pay/ not anymore/ cause I’m caught/ I can’t type/ I can’t tem/ I’m way past college/ no way out / no back doors/ not anymore.” With lyrics like these, and their New Jersey orientation, the band inevitably draws comparisons to Bruce Springsteen.

“It’s the greatest compliment,” Whelan said. “In Jersey, you have that devotion to The Boss. Just being from there, you get this mentality that everything earned is through blood, sweat and tears.”

The rallying cries are softened by The Wrens’ chiming guitars, wistful melodies and gentle harmonies.

“We were somber and reflective with this record, because we are all older. But we don’t act mature,” Whelan said. “We still act like a bunch of idiots.”