Lineup: Charles Bissell: guitar, vocals. Greg Whelan: guitar. Kevin Whelan: bass, vocals. Jerry MacDonnell: drums.
What does “anthemic” mean, exactly? It’s a word that gets thrown around endlessly in record review like this one. What is that secret ingredient that separates the athems from the ditties? I imagine it to be some hidden sonic pheromone that activates the teenage desire to turn the volume up to 11 and press your ears against the speakers. If I were writing a musical dictionary, the definition might look something like this:
an·them·ic adj. 1. see “Hopeless” by The Wrens.
What else can you say about a song like that? On paper, it doesn’t look like much: combine a couple of cheap guitar riffs, some angry breakup lyrics, and a dollop of keyboard icing, stir for 5 minutes, and somehow it magically transforms into an irresistable urge to boogie. The whole thing is so packed with perfectly placed sonic details and unobtrusive twists that it’s easy to simply lose yourself in it. In a better world, “Hopeless” would have defined 2003 the way “I Want to Hold Your Hand” defined 1964.
“Happy”, the opening number (after a brief intro track), takes a similar tack, but with a more bleary-eyed coffee-stained vibe and a two-pronged guitar riff that gradually assembles itself over the course of the song, building from a couple plucked notes to a miraculous climax, before disintegrating into a triumphant final break for freedom.
Here’s the bad news: the album is long, with its 11 songs stretching to over 56 minutes of running time. Every song is good, but some of the less substantial tracks could have stood to be shortened. There’s nothing really wrong with a song like “Faster Gun”, but it’s hard to see why it needs to be almost 4 minutes long. That slight whiff of listener fatigue is all that drags it down from the level of the gods.
But while they may have grayed a bit during their 7-year hiatus, these Wrens can clearly still show their younger colleagues a thing or two about teen athems. As they sing in the crustily explosive “Everyone Chooses Sides”: “Bored and rural-poor / lord, at 35, right? / I’m the best 17 year old ever.” I’m about ready to believe it.