Flipping the script

Wrens find greener pastures with Meadowlands

Taken out of context, the story reads like the stage directions of a Coen Brothers movie:

SETTING: The main dining room in a ferry on the Delaware Bay, filled with senior citizens scowling and clutching their ears. At the room's front, a quartet in their mid-20s is roaring obliviously through a punk rock song.

A furious GRANDFATHER enters from left, brandishing a fire ax.

In the movie, the band would be called something like The Young Peoples' Good Time Rock Show, and the lead singer would be played by Steve Buscemi. In real life, the four men were the Wrens, and the singer's name is Charles Bissell.

"It was awful," says Bissell, laughing. It is early evening in an art-conscious bar in New York's East Village, which — while having no shortage of shaggy hipsters — is fortunately free of ax-wielding Bingo champions. "We had bad sound, it was shrill and loud and harsh. It was just ... ," Bissell breaks off a moment and makes a noise that approximates a jackhammer clanging around inside a suit of armor. "People eventually had to come out and hold this guy back, because he was just livid and he was threatening to personally cut our heads off."

This would not be the last time the Wrens performed for an unappreciative audience. The strange story of the Wrens' fall and rise has been told so many times it's best to boil it to its most significant details. In 1994, the Wrens made a record called Silver for New York indie label Grass. After the band recorded its follow-up, Secaucus, in 1996, Grass was acquired by Alan Meltzer, who decided making rock stars of the Wrens was his top priority.

When the group parried Meltzer's attempts to strong arm it into a lucrative but clause-ridden contract, he withdrew all of the group's financial support mid-tour. A few months later, Meltzer changed Grass' name to Wind-Up and focused all of his affection and attention on a little band from Florida. In our little imaginary Coen Brothers movie, this band would be called Dogma and the lead singer would be played by Heath Ledger. In real life, the lead singer was Scott Stapp, and the band was called Creed.

The Wrens then began protracted and ultimately fruitless meetings with a series of major labels, recording and re-recording songs in a vain attempt to match the industry standard for a pop hit. While no A&R people ever charged at the group with a hatchet, the band's faint praise was often just as damaging. It was in mid-1999 that the Wrens finally called a halt to the whole charade, choosing instead to assemble a record outside the purvey of the mainstream.

That record, The Meadowlands, was released last year to unanimous critical acclaim and the strongest sales of the group's career. A riveting combination of mournful jangle-rock and mercilessly autobiographical lyrics, The Meadowlands balances songs about ruined love with songs about missed opportunities. At times, it reads like a rundown of What Not to Do in the Music Industry.

"Record after record, we're black-and-deckered," says Bissell, sighing, in "Everyone Chooses Sides," "The whole to-do of what to do for money."

"Raymond Carver wrote about being an alcoholic because he was an alcoholic," says Bissell. "We didn't have a cool drug addiction, we weren't alcoholics, but one day I realized, 'Hey, I'm creeping to 40 and I'm sticking with this rock band making $13,000 a year,' maybe that's something worth writing about."

Bissell, who will be paring the songs back to simple acoustic arrangements in a series of solo shows, has come to see the band's various tribulations — axes both literal and figurative — as a sort of hidden blessing, and in the final few scenes of our Coen Brothers movie, buoyed by critical accolades and the ardor of fans, he starts to carry the strange and secret confidence of George Clooney.

"If it all ended band-wise tomorrow, for the first time ever it would all be fine," says Bissell. "We're not desperate for it anymore. Now we play a show and it's sold out, and everyone knows the record, we really enjoy it in a way that I don't think we would have five or 10 years ago. We would have been too worried about maintaining it, or getting to the next level. To be able to have let go of all that, and just enjoy it is really, really wonderful."