Graded on a Curve:
Aeon Station, Observatory

Observatory by Aeon Station marks the solo debut from Kevin Whelan. Along with material specifically written for this album, it offers songs that were long intended for the follow-up to The Meadowlands by The Wrens, the band where Whelan played bass and sang. That makes its ten songs something of a big deal in the indie rock scheme of things, for more reasons than one. Glistening and anthemic, the record delivers an unabashed continuation of indie rock’s sound as it thrived in the ’00s and early ’10s of the 21st century. It’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital formats December 10 through Sub Pop.

The saga of the follow-up to The Meadowlands, an album released by the small indie Absolutely Kosher in September of 2003 to unexpected widespread acclaim, has come to a partial conclusion with Observatory. In short, Kevin Whelan could no longer wait for The Wrens’ next album to be deemed as finished, and so, took songs intended for that record, added some more, recorded them with Jerry McDonald on drums and his brother Greg Whelan on guitar (both members of The Wrens), plus his wife Mary Ann Coronel Whelan on backing vocals, and released them as Aeon Station.

Still, the inescapable: 18 years in wait for a follow-up is a long freaking time. As someone who writes about music specifically due to a lifetime spent unrelentingly listening to music, it’s my perspective that records are generally best when they come to fruition in a timely manner, which is frankly the case with most of the releases now considered canonical rock and pop masterworks. Of course there are exceptions, as The Meadowlands itself took a long time to make, though it’s not like very many people were waiting for that one (as said, the record’s success was something of a leftfield breakout).

Prolonged anticipation ushers in mounting expectations, with the whole scenario likely to become a burden. Such is the case here, and it’s a circumstance Observatory can’t avoid, even as its existence means the end of the drawn-out waiting period with a narrative twist hardly anybody expected and that fewer fans hoped for, plus a possible positive spin: “Hey, now we get TWO post-Meadowlands albums.”

That is, the album by Wrens’ guitarist and vocalist Charles Bissell, which will apparently include songs he wrote for The Meadowlands’ follow-up, is due…sometime soon, also from Sub Pop (please note that this tidbit of info derives from a nicely done article in the UK online newspaper The Independent, occasioned by Observatory’s release but delving into both sides of the issue).

And now a few words about expectations. To start, not everyone’s are the same. In fact, the vast majority of sentient beings had no expectations at all regarding The Wrens’ next album. But that’s not my point. Rather, in my case, as someone who bought Sebadoh’s “Gimme Indie Rock” 7-inch upon release (that’d be 1991), The Meadowlands, a record I do consider to be great but not in a life-altering way, impacted my consciousness as belonging to the end phase of a music cycle that began in the 1980s. In short, my personal expectations were different than they were for others.

I’ve a friend, younger than me but not by all that much, who considers The Meadowlands to be one of the very greatest of rock albums. I don’t think I’d rank it as the best record of 2003. But a flat fact we’d no doubt agree upon is that The Wrens’ last (and now, probably final) record was essentially a guitar-based affair (accented by accordion and piano, as I recall).

And this is one way in which Observatory stands apart. It opens with “Hold On,” a piano and vocals-based piece that’s brevity at a smidge over 90 seconds sets it up as an album intro of sorts, and of the non-guitar kind regularly favored by guitar bands. But then here comes “Leaves,” also with piano at the fore, beginning with wordless vocals in isolation, but in due time weaving in chamber-style strings (appropriately restrained) and strummed guitar. Eventually, bass and drums make their entrance, and the feel of a full band is achieved.

But Observatory is not a band record, it’s a solo effort. This is primarily how these songs distinguish themselves, although the energy of “Fade” does land smack dab in rock territory (I’ll note that the last instrument heard in “Fade” is piano). What the tune shares with Whelan’s prior work is that quality of emotion, the anthemic manner mentioned above, methodically building and then honed, an approach that’s proved quite influential in the recent past.

And so, I’ll now mention that Observatory often has more in common with music that followed The Wrens chronologically (it’s worth stressing that the band formed in 1993, with debut Silver issued the next year and Secaucus following in ’96). For one instance, Whelan’s singing in “Everything at Once” brought hints of The Shins. And for another, the spareness of “Move” reminded me of Fred Thomas’ work as Saturday Looks Good to Me.

I’ll elaborate that I’m not suggesting Whelan is necessarily being influenced by those he’s potentially had a musical impact upon, and he’s certainly not scrambling to play catch-up after a long hiatus. Instead, I’ll offer that Whelan is just painting on a larger canvas and with brighter colors than he ever has before (and outside of a band dynamic), these opportunities possible through the association with a label of Sub Pop’s size.

“Queens” returns to and intensifies the anthemic rock of “Fade,” but with an acoustic strummed coda that vaguely resembles Jeff Tweedy in solo mode. It’s a welcome addition to Observatory, in part because it reinforces how the album’s landscape offers more than mere jams for lifting lit lighters aloft at future summer festivals.

Not that “Empty Rooms,” with its foundation of fingerpicked acoustic guitar and Whelan’s lead vocal (accented by backing voices and piano), lacks in deep feeling. Nor does “Air,” which begins in a quiet, atmospheric place only to gradually ramp up to a rousing conclusion. It sets up a solid combo punch with “Better Love,” where no time is wasted in reaching that plateau of achy-gush, and then a dose of introspective prettiness with finale “Alpine Drive.”

Observatory is a strong, occasionally very fine album, one that unfortunately, at least at this early vantage point, can’t escape its connections to the past (and ruminations on what might’ve been), even as its reality as a release by Aeon Station marks it as a distinctive new chapter rather than merely a closing one. Ultimately, it’s a set of fresh music from Kevin Whelan, of which hopefully there will be more in the not too distant future.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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