A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of having my friend, Rena Wren, who is also a big inspiration for me, perform at Café Vivaldi in New York City. She and her incredibly talented husband performed several songs off her brand new, completely self-produced, CD. I highly recommend anyone interested in good, primarily acoustic, music purchase a copy of her CD. It is even available on iTunes. Since Rena is both a friend and point of aspiration for me, I wanted to write a track by track review of her album. I kind of went a little overboard, but if you are interested in my thoughts (a mix of praise and criticisms), here they are:
Track 1 “Breakdown”: Breakdown is the introductory track of “Sweet Mystery” and is a great way to start. Rena’s strong and supported vocal skills are prominently set forward, giving you a nice big impression of exactly how talented she is as a singer. The guitar backing is a nice blend between rock and singer/songwriter acoustic, and helps this song really count as a cross-over track. Rena’s lyrics are filled with small moments that are so visually evocative that listeners can not only hear the “Breakdown” but see it as well. The chorus is beautifully crafted, and one should notice that the notes slowly slide down as the word “Breakdown” is sung. This type of lyric and musical composition mirroring is prevalent throughout the entire album, but this track is a perfect introduction of what Rena has to offer with the rest of the album.
Track 2 “The State of Things” aka The Bouncy Song: I think my favorite thing about this track is that it asks the question of “If I went to sleep for the next 6 months would I wake up having missed that much, or would I wake up staring at the same 4 walls again?” I often wonder about this exact concept, and at times I am always wishing I would wake up and it would be a new month, new season, or even a new year. As for the dynamics of the song, “The State of the Things” is an excellent example of Rena’s ability to capture the indie-rock sound. Her two-part harmonies are incredibly tight, and their use throughout the song help it shape into a piece which seems young and questioning.
Track 3 “Tell Me Ten Times”: This song uses repetition of composition and lyrics to anchor itself into minds of the listener. The idea of someone asking someone to declare something to them is something that sticks with you. “Tell me ten times you’re never gonna break my heart” speaks of a feeling many of us have. In love, we have all been wounded, and whenever we take a chance on someone new, there can be a desire to get them to promise not to do what the previous heartbreaker did. Of course, getting them to promise such things may or may not help, but then perhaps if they said it ten times they would feel more compelled to keep their word. The emotion behind this song is what makes it a solid track, however the lack of a more evocative shape to song might lend a listening bobbing their head to the 4/4 beat instead of listening to the words involved.
Track 4 “So Close”: The song “So Close” seems to be one of those songs which really scream “Rena.” There are a lot of very specific images and emotions, which allow the listener to truly glimpse into the soul of Mrs. Wren. As a friend, I can tell you that these moments she sings of are certainly every bit as real as they feel. This song is a celebration of the small things two people in love share, and how even the smallest thing, such as saying her name, can truly make the terrors of the outside world melt away. Lovers are, by nature, close to one another, but with each day, each battle, each year, they find themselves closer, and recognizing what this new “closeness” is always worthy of a song.
Track 5 “Sweet Mystery”: The track that is also the title of the album. “Sweet Mystery” feels like a road trip, it is relaxing, and has a strong sense of movement. Rena’s wonderfully supported voice gets to use these aspects of her song to truly show off her range as a vocalist, without providing such a complicated composition that would make it difficult to sing along with her. This song seems to be an official invitation from the singer to come along, and explore the mysteries of the album. Thus, it seems like a perfect song for the road.
Track 6 “Red Dress”: The track of “Red Dress” starts off with a very strong Liz Phair vibe, that I was shocked and happy to hear come out of Rena. However, the song’s chorus shifts the song into different style song, which feels more like acoustic rock. Whereas I think that is fine, I was so excited by the first minute of this song, that I wished I had heard more of that style, since it seemed such a fun departure from the heavy acoustic sing/songwriter vibe that is so prevalent on this album. The chorus also tends to be repetitive to the point that it is about all you remember about the track.
Track 7 “Pushing me Away”: Pushing Away is a song that really presents Rena and her band as a single entity. The vocal and lyrics seem to be share the stage with the instrumentation to a point that made me have to listen to this track more than once to even realize that there were lyrics at all. It was a song that invited me to sway along with, instead of sing a long.
Track 8 “Wrapped Up In You”: I have heard this song come a long way over the years, and remains one of my all time Rena Wren favorites. The current, and I assume final, version that is on this album is an excellent rendition. I always assumed that this is how Rena envisioned this song sounding, and is perhaps one of the best tracks on the entire CD. It is a love song, but, unlike so many love songs which focus on the emotions of new love, Rena poetically express the emotions and desires that timeless love brings about. This expert crafting surely makes this song stand out for all of the right reasons.
Track 9 “I Left You”: There is a lot one can say for this particular track. The topic of the difficulties found in an “on and off again” romance is normally one that has the singer singing of his/her triumph of finally getting away, or a tragic bemoaning of the damage that was done to them. Rena manages to avoid these cliché topics, and instead capture the complex emotions of someone maintaining their resolve to stay away for good. Musically, this song has many exciting elements. The easiest to identify would be the addition of a male back-up vocal. Given the subject matter of this song, it is entertaining that the person joining her would be her husband. The other musical gem that shines in this song is that of Rena’s “woah-oh-oh” which is repeated several times throughout the song, and will certainly stick in your head long after the track has ended.
Track 10 “Random Matter”: This is perhaps my favorite song Rena has ever written, and I have heard it evolve from a solo acoustic song to the musically layered version that is on this CD. Personally, I think this song has such brilliant lyrics that a simple acoustic accompaniment is all that is necessary. The simple acoustic version made the lyrics more prominent, and actually enhanced the simple concept and yet deep meaning of the song. That being said, if one had never heard the original, they would still be blown away by the fuller instrumentation that Rena offers us. The new version certainly has elements I enjoy, the backing vocals and percussion give the song a more forward momentum than the acoustic version, but I still maintain my preference for the original. Perhaps Rena will grace us with an acoustic version we can download as a bonus?
Track 11 “Take It Back”: Rena’s exploration of the desire to take something, be it words or actions, back in this song is one that we all can relate to. This song seems to be an apology in itself, and to that end I enjoyed it. However, this song does not really seem to hold up against many of the other songs, and seems to repeat itself more than feels unnecessary. The brilliance I find is mainly in the few lyrics we are given, which seems to focus on not rationalizing the infraction, but simply state, albeit perhaps too much, that there is no good reason. This type of maturity is what makes this song a perfect apology.
Track 12 “Aftermath”: I was shocked by this song the first time I heard it, because it felt like Rena was covering a mash-up of “The Cranberries.” The track begins with shades of “Zombie” and even Rena’s vocals seem to be in the style of “The Cranberries.” The likeness in musicality was jarring, but being a fan of both bands, I was happy to listen to this track multiple times. Aftermath is certainly one of the best tracks of the album, and certainly has mass appeal, especially for the “Twilight” crowd who would probably find this a perfect song to represent Bella’s feelings of devastation when Edward leaves her. Much like “Twilight” this song is wrought with heavy emotions which flow out of Rena’s voice, first quietly, and then unleashed like a fierce storm. Truly anyone who has been hurt knows that dealing with the aftermath of heartbreak will want to sing along with Rena at full volume. “Aftermath” is a great song for catharsis.
Track 13 “Do You Wanna Talk”: I often wonder if Rena anticipated my desire for a song like this to appear on her CD. A song about the patient involved in communication, paired with a gorgeous blend of piano and guitar has always been on my wish list, and Rena has made me very happy with what she has provided. Whereas I normally hate instrumental solos, I actually found myself wishing that this song had one. This song’s delicate instrumentation reinforces how careful one needs to be in periods where communication can be a bit strained between two people. This type of lyric and musical mirroring, which is seen throughout many of Rena’s songs, is an excellent example of what identifies Rena as an artist.
Track 14 “I Am The Sun”: This song is musically engaging, and is perhaps the best back-up vocals on the entire CD. Thematically the song is somewhat confusing, and I am unsure if that is intentional. Is the seemingly grounding effect the other person has on the vocalist a good thing or not? Why does he/she love the other? It seems like the singer wants to be cut loose, and the male voice seems to be encouraging this behavior, so it is uncertain what the issue is. For these reasons the message seems unclear. Fortunately, the song is incredibly catchy, and has a killer chorus, so people may not ever notice. It is also possible that the song is intentionally confusing.
Track 15 “Light of Day”: The final track on the album is a wonderful way for Rena to go out with a beautiful bang. This track truly crystallizes the beautiful vocal work, exquisite lyrics, and creative compositions which represent Rena as an artist. Rena’s vocal work is set forward from the instrumentation in a way allows the audience to focus on the lyrics, and yet it is not so overpowering that people will fail to see the harmony and balance the timing and word choice connect to the overall composition. This track is not my favorite, but I had to play one song for a stranger to know who Rena is as an artist, this would probably be my first choice.