The story of The Wrens has become the stuff of indie-rock legend: critically lauded but commercially underappreciated overachievers who released three amazing full-lengths from 1994 to 2003 and then virtually disappeared, leaving the world waiting for more.
Along the way, the Jersey-bred quartet — frontman/guitarist Charles Bissell, brothers Kevin and Greg Whelan on bass and guitar, respectively, and drummer Jerry MacDonald — turned down a mega-dollar major label deal, opted to keep their day jobs in lieu of long tours, and continually promised fans a follow-up to 2003’s masterpiece The Meadowlands. It became an inside joke, with T-shirts that read, “Keeping Fans Waiting Since 1998.”
And then it wasn’t funny anymore.
The Wrens did write and record that sequel, which became delayed when Bissell suffered a cancer diagnosis (from which, thankfully, he fully recovered). Then Kevin Whelan found himself transferred overseas and left the States for two years. But for years after the tracks had been completed, Bissell kept tweaking, remixing and refining the work-in-progress (tentatively titled The Wildwoods), posting updates on social media and even inviting friends over to hear the tracks, but never finalizing a release date. Then the pandemic shut down everything.
At some point, Kevin Whelan decided he couldn’t wait any longer. In June, he pulled the five tracks he had written and added five new ones, recorded with his brother and MacDonald. On Dec. 10, the Sub Pop label will release those songs as Observatory, under the name Aeon Station.
“We finished recording The Meadowlands as of 2002, 2003, and that’s a long time ago, right?” Whelan said. “You’re literally talking about ancient history. And we went through this long cycle of life, you know — careers, families, kids, all that kind of stuff. You know how it goes. I think people don’t realize how tricky it is to traverse your 40s. It was a lot more than people were prepared for.”
Whelan acknowledges that some of the delays couldn’t be avoided, that much of The Wrens’ recalcitrance simply had to do with the band’s day jobs (Greg practices law, and Kevin holds a senior management position in a major pharmaceutical company). “But I had every intention of having another record out,” he said. “All I ever wanted was to make music with The Wrens, it’s all I ever did. And I would say that it just got to a point where you can’t wait anymore. You can’t believe that it’s right around the corner forever, and I believed that for 17 years.”
While a certain amount of finger-pointing has surfaced in the press, Whelan refused to cast any aspersions on Bissell. In his mind, they just reached an impasse that had to be broken, and it broke his heart.
“I think everyone has a different definition of ‘done,’ and a lot happened to me during this time,” the 51-year old Whelan said. “I’m halfway through my life, and I just kept hoping and waiting. But I think a lot of people changed during COVID. I think it made us think differently about time. My little boy has autism, and that was a life-changing experience. And then I had other kinds of family stuff, deaths and things that everyone goes through, and I just thought, ‘I don’t want to wait anymore. I’m just gonna keep playing the game and I just want to enjoy music.’ And that was really the only intent.
“It didn’t even come into focus that this was going to happen until April or May of this year; it was kind of crazy,” Whelan continued. “I didn’t expect it, ever. And then, when this happened, I said to my wife, ‘I’ll be okay if only three people like it.’ … What’s different now is that there’s no expectations. I would say it’s kind of about age. You learn how to enjoy it more.
“Look, I started the Wrens. I am always going to be in the band. It’s shaped who I am as a person, as an adult. The Wrens affected where I worked, where I lived, what I waited for. Everything was always based around the band. And I kept hoping and waiting.”
At one point, Whelan was offered an opportunity to work and live in Asia. “And the first call I made was to Charles, you know. ‘Should I go? Will this impact the record?’ And he said, ‘Go do it, we’ll make it work.’ And that was very sweet and supportive. And then I came back after over two years, and it still wasn’t done.”
On the basis of several singles, critics have agreed that Observatory, although released under the name Aeon Station, sounds very much like The Wrens, with its soft/loud dynamics, sweeping choruses, gorgeous melodies and deeply felt lyrics. Anyone listening in 2021 might believe the melancholy and reflective tone of the songs resulted from the pandemic. But in truth, everything had been written before 2020.
“Five of the songs are from what was going to be the Wrens record,” Whelan said. “We used to do 25, 26 songs on an album, so it was nice this time to work on just 10 songs, 38 minutes, kind of like back in the ’70s — a throwback to that old classic LP style. It was going to be this kind of story across the three records with Secaucus (1996), The Meadowlands and this last one. That was the big concept that we were heading towards. And that doesn’t mean it can’t happen someday. But I wrote the demos for those Wrens songs around 2007. They were recorded back in 2013, 2014. We didn’t do any recording after that. So it took seven years to make those songs, and people are just going to hear them now.”
The other five tracks, in contrast, were recorded over three days and finished in five weeks, with Tom Beaujour producing the sessions and mixing the entire album.
“That was all last December,” said Whelan. “On Dec. 18, I went into the studio with the expectation of just kind of doing music to enjoy myself, and it was kind of crazy. Jerry recorded all five of the drum tracks in like, five hours; he knocked it out in one session. I went in the next day and recorded the guitars. Then we added the bass and pianos, and then that third day was vocals.”
Recording with Beaujour, Whelan noted, “was the first time I ever really recorded vocals with somebody who pushed me to do a little bit better. It was really, really nice. And it was deep in COVID. There was even one time we tried to record but I had been exposed and we had to cancel a session. And then Tom was joking that I did my vocals that day after I got my COVID shots, which really improved my voice. Everyone was masked up the whole session, the whole time, even doing vocals.”
In light of the back story, the album sounds surprisingly cohesive, both sonically and thematically. Whelan credits this to Beaujour’s mix. “He’s the only one who knows everything that’s in those tracks, he got in so deep,” said Whelan.
The title Observatory was inspired by Whelan’s son, who has autism.
“He can’t be in the normal world; he speaks, but his craft of understanding is completely on a different level,” he explained. “He’s always observing everything and kind of looking at things. So that’s a big part of the record.
“And the other part is just, you know, all of us, we’re observing everything around us all the time. So in these songs, I was trying to go after a feeling of wistful hope, and some regret, and asking, ‘What’s the next step?’ You never know what’s going to happen, so you hope things happen for the best, and you know that life is all about change.”
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