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the pathetic caverns - music by artist - The Wrens

eclectic reviews and opinions

The Wrens (with The Jim Yoshii Pile-up, Audible)

19 Aug 2005

The Middle East (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

How's this for a rock'n'roll myth? While touring their new album, a promising young indie band is pressured to sign away creative rights in a fishy big-money deal. The band refuses, they're dropped, and the tour is cancelled. Their label retools itself to sign acts like Creed. The band limps home and spends the next few years learning how tough it is to release a record when you're blackballed by the industry. This usually kills the band, but this outfit's resolve is only strengthened. They hunker down, rehearsing and recording on the cheap, in their own house, playing as many shows as their day jobs will allow. Seven years later they finally release another album. It's called The Meadowlands — a reference to the band's unglamorous New Jersey home — and it's pretty much hailed as an instant masterpiece.

So yeah, The Wrens' old label, Wind-Up (formerly Grass) really did sign Creed.

The Meadowlands is far from snoozy, but its dynamics break in long swells — it rocks, but it doesn't rawk. Many of the songs are sung in husky whispers. The arrangements are intricate, with layered and interlocking keyboard and guitar parts. Not surprisingly, some of the songs are about the band's own struggle to exist, sprinkled with phrases like "lived through underrated/getting jaded," "quitter quitter one boy bitter," and "a wrens' ditch battle plan." One of the few nakedly positive sentiments — "but then once a while/we'll play a show then that makes it worthwhile" — comes in "This Boy Is Exhausted," an anthem of resignation.

This means that listening to The Meadowlands won't prepare you for their live set, because during the past seven or eight years of playing and recording, the band has become a formidable live act. The Wrens opened their set the Middle East with a brief and underwhelming delay pedal improvisation, but then launched into "Per Second Second." It was immediately apparent that The Wrens aren't the sort of band that faithfully recreates the details of a song's recorded version.

Live, they rock much harder. (It's also likely that the band's low-budget/low-tech recording process made it difficult to capture how explosively drummer Jerry MacDonnell plays.) Sometimes the mood of the song shifted: when Charles Bissell sings "I've been let down/But I got up" on The Meadowland's version of "Boys You Won't," he sounds defiant. In Cambridge, with a couple hundred sweating heaving bodies shouting the words back at him, he was triumphant.

They didn't talk much, but throughout they radiated an exuberance that contrasted with their downbeat lyrics and ferocious performance. Bassist/vocalist Kevin Whelan showed it most clearly. He bounded around the stage while pounding his upside-down right-handed bass, climbed on the drum riser and on top of his amp, grinning furiously.

Their singing was less nuanced (and sometimes less precise) but more intense. It was almost scary when Kevin Whelan screamed, "I'm not dead/I'm not dead/I'm not dead" at the coda of "Happy." They're one of the very few bands that understands that near-silence can be just as dramatic as shattering volume and knows how to exploit both. Their control of timing and dynamic shifts reminded me of Fugazi, a comparison I don't make lightly.

There's no one named Jim Yoshii in The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up, but there are three guitarists in the band — as many as were in Lynyrd Skynyrd. But The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up avoided all the usual guitar hero and anti-hero tricks: there were a few melodic leads but no soloing, and they didn't explore dissonance or harmonic overtones. A multi-guitar band can be a puzzle box for the amateur performers in the audience; you can try to determine what tuning each player is in, but I'm nearly certain they were all in standard tuning. They sometimes voiced a chord across multiple instruments, like math-rock bands, but unlike typical math rock, most of the songs had a consistent tempo and stayed in a single key throughout, relying primarily on loud/soft contrasts to build drama. Basic arithmetic rock, perhaps.

Singer/guitarist Paul Gonzenbach has a husky baritone that was reminiscent of Pedro the Lion's David Bazan (especially when he used Bazan's trick of climbing a fifth or an octave for a song's concluding verse), but he was less charismatic. I found them very enjoyable for three or four songs, but the longer they played, the less significant the differences between their songs seemed.

Audible sound like they grew up listening to the cerebral side of mid-to-late-'80s new wave — less dance-oriented and quirkier than the bands that inspired Interpol and Franz Ferdinand. Their songs aren't harmonically complex, but the arrangements are intricate. They don't necessarily have the sort of hooks that embed themselves in your head, but they sound very pleasant — if a bit conventional — while they're playing. The band's slight stiffness was offset by the amount of fun they seemed to be having. But they pushed indie-rock self-deprecation to extremes — lead guitarist Jim Kehoe used Eddie Van Halen-style fretboard tapping on one tune, but he retreated to the rear of the stage and turned his back to the audience while he did it. A little more confidence and road-mileage could turn them into an excellent band.

This review originally appeared at Avoid Peril.

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