- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The word “success” meant something very different to the Wrens 16 years ago. Like any young and ambitious rock band, the New Jersey foursome dreamed of a record executive begging for their signatures on a million-dollar contract.

That offer actually materialized in the mid-1990s after the band released its second disc, “Secaucus.” But the Wrens didn’t agree with the terms and waited for other labels to recruit them.

In 1998, another label approached, but Wrens supporters on its staff were all canned as part of an industry merger.

Bitter and wiser from the experience, the group stayed together to write and record songs between January 1999 and January 2003. That spring, the Wrens released the career-rejuvenating disc, “The Meadowlands” on the small Absolutely Kosher label.

Buoyed by an outpouring of critical praise, the Wrens’ dreams of huge contracts have given way to the satisfaction of playing weekend shows and then returning to their day jobs in Manhattan. The band performs tomorrow at the Black Cat.

There’s no new disc to support, at least not yet. The group is preparing to head into its basement studio to record throughout the fall and early winter, says guitarist Greg Whelan during a phone interview before a recent gig in Houston.

To date, only fragments and ideas for songs have emerged. Those seedlings of future tracks suggest a continuation of “The Meadowlands.” “I don’t think it will be a drastic departure,” says Mr. Whelan, 42.

That’s just fine for fans of the Wrens’ four full-length albums. Critics adored “The Meadowlands,” and the avalanche of buzz has led to sold-out shows at 500 to 1,000 seat venues across the United States.

The songwriting is earnest, oftentimes anguished and abstract enough to course with meaning through the hearts of all listeners.

Kevin Whelan, Greg’s brother, heightens the mood with hushed, ghostlike vocals that are partly intentional, and partly a cherished result of the limitations of home-studio recording.

The band bookends “The Meadowlands” with pronouncements on a journey that’s veered far from its intended path. Those three minutes, punctuated with lines like, “I’m nowhere near where I dreamed I’d be/I can’t believe what life’s done to me,” are written for those moments of head-in-hands, my-life-is-a-disaster moments.

The Wrens also satisfy rock ‘n’ roll noise fiends who crave blasts of power-pop hooks and manic guitar romps. “Faster Gun,” “Per Second Second” and “Everyone Chooses Sides,” a loud-to-soft-to-loud rant about the band’s record-label woes, should be highlights of the Black Cat show.

The critical acclaim, which includes such descriptors as “indie-rock statesman” by online music publication Pitchfork, helps sell tickets and wraps a sheen of “must-see” hipness around the band.

Some groups might wilt, bicker or break up as they try to write what could be a breakout release. But Mr. Whelan says he and his band mates feel no pressure to deliver a blockbuster follow-up.

The Wrens will never becomemegastars on par with Britney Spears, he says with a laugh. But a successful record would spring the band mates from their day jobs and into the lifestyle of full-time, always-on-the-road musicians. And that’s a new level of success Mr. Whelan’s looking forward to achieving.

* * *

On rock music’s ever-expanding family tree, Hockey Night sprouts from the same branch as British do-it-yourself iconoclasts The Fall and California’s shambling, sharp-witted Pavement.

Hockey Night’s fuzzed-out guitars wind and slide like rattlesnakes in the desert, and the band shares the blurry-eyed charm and the kind of “is anything really worth the effort?” ennui that inspired a generation of slacker-rock anthems.

The artwork for Hockey Night’s most recent disc, “Keep Guessin’ ” salutes the band’s lineage with a collage of scuffed effects pedals, cords and amplifiers.

In a salute to Pavement lead vocalist Stephen Malkmus, singer/guitarist Paul Sprangers delivers lines likes “And you know that we mean well/But it takes so long” with a distant, almost bored, affectation. Oh, he means what he’s saying, but Mr. Sprangers is playing the detached role as far as it’ll take him.

The Twin Cities-based band, which visits DC9 on Wednesday, makes its best noise when it dumps the too-cool exterior for honest emotion.

Mr. Sprangers contributes a fragile vocal to the melancholy “Sunset Eyes,” and he and guitarist Scott Wells tap into the “classic rock” limb of that family tree to incorporate intricate, sweeping guitar interplay into such songs as “Renegades” and “Co-operation.”


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