It doesn't get much catchier than the collage of infectious hooks the Wrens present on The Meadowlands. That's not to say there's anything facile about the New Jersey quartet's long-awaited follow-up to 1996's Secaucus. Rather, its latest pastes a keen understanding of major-key pop over an assortment of attractive guitar riffs, morphing from quiet airiness and soft-sung vocals to bold, distorted rock 'n' roll. The record sounds equally calculated and haphazard, its fragments of cleverly arranged ideas colliding and blooming with little regard for song structure; it's as if little cities of melody were built by intelligent architects with their own languages, and these cities grew and grew until they touched one another. The resulting nation of sound, albeit sometimes (intentionally?) ragged, is intricate and stunning.
The record starts with "The House That Guilt Built," in which a lazy electric guitar strums quiet chords over a bed of crickets chirping, then quickly forays into the droning toms and elevating six-string noodles of "Happy." It's four minutes into the latter that the album kicks in, with joyful power chords and hard-hit drums. This ends up being much of the Wrens' approach: stringing several songs together to achieve climax.
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Behind all of The Meadowlands' catchy peaks and valleys is a recording that sounds timeless. This makes sense, considering it took more than seven years for the Wrens to complete it (partly because of some nasty luck with their former label). Clearly, these were years full of a variety of emotions that manifested themselves in the songwriting approaches. Hence, tunes that pay homage to everything from the Rolling Stones ("This Is Not What You Had Planned") and '60s psychedelic pop ("This Boy Is Exhausted") to early '90s alternative rock ("Faster Gun"). It's this diversity and the balancing of clever melodies with a seeming lack of structure that make the record one of the most impressive American indie-rock albums of the past few years.