Head of the class
Certain albums--and, if they're lucky, certain bands--so skillfully present both influence and intent that they come to stand for an entire genre. The Wrens sum up (deep breath) American post-punk rock the same way in which XTC can serve as the Cliff Notes for turn-of-the-'80s Brit power pop, or the Cucumbers represent the horrors of the mid-'80s indie scene.
Listening to Secaucus, the Wrens' latest release, is a long look through the ever-lengthening list of contemporary rock 'n' roll influences, presented with enough originality and character that they come off as referenced, not reproduced. A lick or progression might catch your attention or tickle your memory, but in a way that makes you realize that the New Jersey quartet has listened to the same music as, say, Tom Petty--not just copped one of his riffs.
The band owes its success to two strong suits: first, a sense of melody that evades many similar bands, strong enough to push through the chop and chatter of an unabashedly guitar-led style (nonetheless, the band remains gleefully unafraid of noise); and second, the Wrens enjoy a uniquely cohesive history that lends the songwriting weight and unity. All the members--guitarist Charles Bissell, drummer Jerome McDowell, and brothers Greg (guitar) and Kevin (vocals) Whelan--are friends, cooperative enough to have lived in the same house together for four years.
Of course, after their first gig in 1990--as the "house" band on the Cape May Ferry, playing to senior citizens shuttling between New Jersey and New York--anything else would seem a piece of cake. They hung in there, through "getting ourselves fired from practically every place you can play in South Jersey," Mac Dowell once told a home-state weekly. In 1994 they made their first album, the well-received Silver.
The promise of Silver--especially the smart, sure songwriting--is more than met by Seacaucus: Pointed punkery, Beatlemania, and the Beach Boys all collide under the steel-gray skies of New Jersey; the lyrics croon, rant, and simmer with rage in turn as the Wrens--an overlooked treasure--skillfully examine life and love in the '90s.