Review Summary: Your move, Charles Bissell.
Kevin Whelan has had enough.
2003 was the last time we heard from New Jersey-based quartet The Wrens
. By that point, the band members were already well into their thirties and tired of the music business. Yet, from the late stages of their career came their defining release - The Meadowlands
is a timeless classic that has only gotten better with time. It's one of the most vulnerable, honest and bygone catchy
indie rock albums ever written. The magic of Bissell and Whelan was incredibly dynamic and set a bar that few bands before and since have managed to reach. And just as quickly as the magic was captured, it faded into nothing.
Years passed. We heard very little. Fans were desperate for any
sort of a follow-up, let alone anything of the caliber of The Meadowlands
. But there was nothing except for radio silence and the occasional leaked track that gave hints of what was coming down the pipeline. The band members eventually moved on (the Whelan brothers ended up working in big pharma and going the corporate route) and gave up the gig life. Fans had made peace with the fact that we were likely never getting a sequel. But, try as he might, Bissell has never really called it quits. He continued to tease fans with nuggets of news, keeping them dangling on a string and ever-hopeful that someday, they might finally get the white whale release.
Eventually, the rest of the band decided that it was time to move on from their estranged frontman, and we got a surprise release of ten songs under the name Aeon Station
. Bissell allegedly had no idea this was happening, and while his absence from the album is clearly noticeable, this is a well-crafted release that manages to mostly live up to expectations that could only be described as exorbitant. Whelan is as crafty and whimsical as ever, despite having many years between album releases (nearly twenty, by the time of this review). Five of the ten tracks were allegedly cleansed of Bissell's vocals and re-released, so the inevitable comparison to The Wrens
is warranted, but the rest of the band sounds sharp and like they haven't missed a beat. Album standouts "Fade" and "Queens" carry a ton of nostalgia, and lyrics on album closer "Alpine Drive" mention Whelan's laments about unfinished songs from years passed. One has to think that's a direct message to Bissell, whose perfectionistic tendencies ended up heavily contributing to the rifts in the band that eventually drew everybody apart.
Make no mistake, this album was doomed from the start for being compared to an absolute landmark in the indie rock scene. And despite the mammoth expectations, Whelan and co. have managed to lose the cobwebs and craft a release that brings much needed closure to one of the most patient fanbases of all time. Honestly, the worst part of Observatory
is that Bissell's bitterness and knack for vocal harmonies would have taken this album to the next level, and Whelan likely knows this to be true. The Wrens
were truly a group of musicians who were greater than the sum of their parts, but if this is the final chapter from a band that has known nothing but the weight of expectations - it's a damn fine way to close the book.