Kevin Whelan is Global Head of R&D Strategic Initiatives and Operations at Johnson & Johnson and he manages about 400 employees. Hardly anyone at the drug company knows that he was once a prominent member of The Wrens, a group who were described by Michael Hann in The Guardian in 2006 as “one of the best live bands in the world.”
The Wrens, from New Jersey, released two albums in the mid Nineties which were frenetic post-punk guitar classics. The popularity of these records caused them to be offered a new contract worth $1 million by the new owner of their label, Grass Records. However, a condition of signing the contract was that they would make more radio-friendly music and so they refused the offer. Their third album, “Meadowlands” was released in 2003, nine years after their second album on “Absolutely Kosher Records” which was owned by a friend of theirs. The album was met with almost unanimous acclaim. For example, The Guardian described how they had “swapped punk fervour for cobwebbed curios about thwarted dreams and the romantic, perilous pursuit of adolescent ideals into your mid-30s.”
Since 2003, a fourth album has been promised but, despite many new songs being written, it has never materialised. Although The Wrens have never officially disbanded, members of the group have married and embarked on more mainstream careers. Finally, this year, lead singer Kevin Whelan tired of the bitterness and lack of communication between him and his former songwriting partner, Charles Bissell and decided to re-record six of the songs and write four new ones. Greg Whelan (guitar) and Jerry MacDonald (drums) from the Wrens form Aeon Station along with Tom Beaujour (guitar) and Mary Ann Coronel (vocals). However, this is, essentially, a Kevin Whelan solo album.
In 2014, Charles Bissell posted on Facebook that The Wrens’ fourth album was complete but he didn’t consider it to be very good. Kevin Whelan was annoyed by the post and claims that his former friend was rubbishing the work that he had done up until that point. The two men disagree on what work has been carried out since. Charles Bissell claims to have spent “hundreds of hours” on the music and approved a final version of The Wrens’ fourth album in 2019. Further disagreements followed about what was needed to finalise the project until Kevin Whelan lost patience, writing and recording four new songs in 2020. Charles Bissell now plans to release his own solo album next year.
In one interview for the new album, Kevin Whelan addressed the issue of calling himself Aeon Station. He said that he didn’t want to be an another band called “The ….’s” When he first started the band, they called themselves Low, until they realised that there was a band of the same name. At the time, he said, there were very few bands called “The …’s” so they chose The Wrens. When The Strokes came along, he thinks that everything changed. Now he wants a name that doesn’t sound like a band. This got me into thinking about band names which sound like they should be “The…’s”. A band with an ‘s’ at the end of their name are normally “The …’s” but not always. The Beatles, The Kinks and The Mountain Goats are obvious examples. Exceptions are Eels are not The Eels and Counting Crows are not The Counting Crows. Conversely, The Hold Steady are not the Hold Steadies, The Cure are not The Cures and The War On Drugs don’t even sound like a band at all. It’s complicated. I digress.
Despite the bitterness involved in the making of the album, the lyrics express the hope that love can find a way forward out of life’s difficulties. The second track, “Leaves” includes lines like “I wonder just how long do I need to be alone“. I listened to this album for the first time today while I was reading today’s Guardian. There was a heartwarming story about a father and his nine year old son who went trainspotting at Taunton Railway Station. Suddenly the small boy shouted a warning to his Dad as he saw a man in his early twenties jump off the platform and lie down on the tracks in front of a train that was about to leave the station. Father and son shouted and screamed at the driver of the train to stop. The Dad said that he thinks that other passengers on the platform would have thought they were a crazy pair but, luckily, the driver of the train saw them and the young man was taken away and cared for. Lines such as “Hope lifts the sun, fear drags it down, but love finds your voice and turns it into sound” resonate with the feeling I had reading about the heroic efforts of father and son while listening to the uplifting music of Aeon Station.
There’s a great mixture of sounds on this album. Some of the more upbeat tracks, such as “Fade” remind me of Supergrass or an interesting version of Coldplay. Lyrics such as “Day after day, it appears we are more than we ever believed we could be” are complemented by the impassioned vocals, crashing drums and clever counter melody.
“Everything At Once” is a lovely pop song with a tune and sound that reminds me of Badfinger. Again, the harmonies, melody and vocals combine to bring hope to a situation in which the past is weighing heavily on the singer who feels he has nothing left to give. He has decided he isn’t going to relive his mistakes but is going to find a better future.
Another excellent up-tempo song is “Queens”. Lyrics such as “When did all those ends begin? It still feels like it always did” imply that the song is directed at Charles Bissell but this is one of the original Wrens’ songs, written before their conflict. It’s a multi-part song – a bit like “You Never Give Me Your Money” or “Band On The Run” – and the upbeat, hopeful nature of the songs is affirmed with the statement that “You can’t always lose, it’s time to win”.
Not all the songs are musically upbeat. “Move” is low key with a strummed acoustic guitar and a beautiful, melodic piano piece played by Kevin Whelan. “It’s time to deal with all the pain. Salvation comes in quiet ways”. As 2021 draws to a close, this is, indeed, music that acknowledges the melancholia that pervades a lot of us while providing hope for a better year to come.