I think people have finally given up on that follow-up album from The Wrens. The oft-cited magnum opus fifteen years in the making that was not to be. Even Wikipedia nows refers to The Wrens in the past tense. And so it is that the mysterious pride of New Jersey (and the only band that should have held the “American Radiohead” title) comes to an end. What we’re left with is Aeon Station, a solo effort that is essentially one half of The Wrens’ writing duo, Kevin Whelan, taking his songs from that never-to-be album and releasing them, along with some new tunes, as this album, Observatory. So we kinda-sorta got some of that Wrens music anyhow, right?
Well, yes and no. I don’t know how the song-writing split between Whelan and the admitted “genius” in the band (and the chief reason the album never got released) Charles Bissell worked, but I get the sense that Bissell was the heavier hitter between the two. And the insane person who yanked the finished and mastered fourth Wrens album back from the brink of being released in 2013 only to continue to tinker with it for another eight years until Whelan grabbed his stuff back and shoved it out into the world on Observatory. Point is, this album sounds a lot like a Wrens album. But maybe the Whelan part of that album. Which is missing some of the more intricate and impactful tunes of Bissell’s. It’s like a Dinosaur Jr. album full of only Lou Barlow songs. Or a Police album of only Andy-Summers-penned tunes. Ok, not even close to that bad. But you get the idea.
But taking the album on its own merits, it’s actually pretty darned good in spots. Considering, of course, that some of the tunes are probably over a decade old at this point. Not that any of the music from any of their albums really ever felt of a time. I think the Wrens albums, especially The Meadowlands, were popular because they felt timeless. It couldn’t be pinned to a time or genre. Written and recorded in 1999 (though not released until 2003), it felt incredibly nostalgic, yet warm, emotional and cathartic without going anywhere near the pop punkemo trend of that time period. It’s adult rock music without sounding stodgy or like “classic” rock. It’s complicated and layered and reveals something new upon each listen. So, where does Observatory sit within this?
At first I was a little underwhelmed. I’m not even sure why. I think I expected some grandiosity that never emerged. Expectations are a bitch. And, honestly, I’d been waiting on it for a decade and half since getting my silk-screened copy of Meadowlands from Absolutely Kosher back in 2003. Observatory starts off a little slow and morose. Not bad, mind you. It just seems to go along with some of the more dirge-y Wrens stuff without some of the build and ultimate burst and bloom (to use a Cursive term) that made that music so special. What I did enjoy right off the bat is the production. If I had one complaint about the old stuff it’s that sometimes it was buried in too much fuzz. Presumably Bissell, after twidling knobs for four years, just added too many layers of stuff. This Aeon Station album strips some of that away and allows you to actually hear the music and the vocals. Which is a good thing. The pace does pick up a bit after the first couple tracks. In fact, track three, “Fade,” could easily be confused with a slightly more indie Killers song.
The rest of the album kind of oscillates between quieter singer-songwriter stuff and more bombastic indie rock. Though it’s indie rock that still feels genreless. I can’t really pin it to an influence at all. It’s not punk. It’s not post-hardcore or post-punk. It’s not roots-y or Americana-ish. It’s not classic-rockish. I suppose there’s some Pixies in there, but what indie band worth its weight doesn’t cite them as an influence? But then a song like “Empty Rooms” rolls around and it’s all Elliot Smithsadcore guitar strumming. I’d say a good 75% of the ten tracks (which I know isn’t a whole number) are pretty downcast. I would have liked more pep and less end-of-it-all All Shook Down energy. That’s just a personal preference, of course. But sometimes when things are almost too barebones and too heart-on-your-sleeve, it becomes kind of terrestrial. I don’t know the split between what was old and what is new, but I’d hazard a guess that the more interesting, more energetic stuff are the leftovers. And the more introspective strumming is his current stuff. I know which I prefer. I suppose now we all sit around and wait for Bissell to release his solo material. I’m not holding my breath.