I've heard so many stories of bands going through the record-label wringer that it's starting to seem like the rule rather than the exception. Take The Wrens, for example: they haven't put out anything since an EP in '98, while Creed (an example of the fare their former label picked up when it changed ownership) continues to undeservedly sell millions of records. But a group that begins their career by getting fired from a house-band gig on a senior-citizen cruise ship (for covering The Pixies' "Debaser", no less) doesn't let something as superficial as label-exec rejection keep them down. And now they've made what may well be their best album yet. Judging from these thirteen songs, The Wrens are bruised but not beaten. The bitter kiss-off in "Happy" could be directed at an ex-girlfriend or an ex-record label with equal plausibility: "Aren't you happy now / Got what you want / I wanted you / But I'm over that now".
The Meadowlands sustains The Wrens' vaunted stylistic diversity. Sometimes they mask their bad feelings with gentle piano-and strings-accented ballads ("Thirteen Grand") and delicately sweeping arpeggios ("She Sends Kisses"). On other occasions, the resentment is rocked out: "Per Second Second" and "Faster Gun" inject catchy jangle-pop with aggression through driving beats and unintelligible, effected lyrics, while the pounding, midtempo "Everyone Choose Sides" makes it easy to see why bassist Sett once broke through the stage at a show.
The Meadowlands is hard to categorize. You could listen to "This Boy is Exhausted" and peg the album as straightforward rock, but that would be ignoring the ambling grace of the disc's slower numbers, such as the countryish "13 Months in 6 Minutes" or "This is Not What You Had Planned", a live-recorded piano-and-vocals snippet that closes the album. The Wrens experiment with sounds and textures you don't normally hear in so-called "rock" records, but unlike many groups, they manage to do this in a way that attracts attention without upstaging the actual music. And the songwriting just keeps getting better; there isn't a lackluster track in the bunch.
With The Meadowlands, The Wrens have both evolved musically and finalized their messy divorce from the music industry's more full-of-shit segment. I could quote platitudes about triumphing over adversity and bitterness making victories all the sweeter -- and this record represents all of that. But the most important thing isn't the struggle that led up to The Meadowlands; it's the fact that the finished product is outstanding.