Criticized for their uncanny resemblance to R.E.M., Connecticut’s Miracle Legion cannot be so easily dismissed as rote imitators. There’s no denying the obvious similarities (vocals and guitar); thanks to musical creativity, however, Miracle Legion manages to stake out their own territory.
Savvy production techniques and aggressive playing make The Backyard a landmark. Mark Mulcahy’s vocals can grate, but not enough to sully the sheer brilliance of the title track, “Stephen Are You There,” “Closer to the Wall” and “Butterflies.” Surprise Surprise Surprise lacks the honest abandon of The Backyard, an essential ingredient to Miracle Legion’s appeal. In spite of improved musicianship and vocals, it’s a disappointment.
The new studio work on Glad (a side of the LP was recorded live in New York, with a one-song guest appearance by the entirety of Pere Ubu!) is a welcome relief from the restraint of Surprise. The three songs literally bristle with renewed heartfelt emotion, and the formerly enigmatic lyrics now conjure up a vast array of crystalline images on “A Heart Disease Called Love” and “Hey, Lucky.”
Down to a duo, Miracle Legion returned with the bittersweet Me and Mr. Ray. By now Mulcahy and guitarist Ray Neal have honed their music into a warm, deep folk-rock. Like the late Byrds, it’s akin to old-time acoustic country in spirit more than sound. There’s nothing ironic or post-modern or even rocking here, just sad, lovely melodies and words that seem to carry the weight of humanity. Even the upbeat love songs (“You’re the One Lee” and “Even Better”) are tinged with doubt and loss. This is an album that grows on the listener slowly and nourishes the soul.
Following Drenched, legal issues left Miracle Legion in limbo. In the meantime, Mulcahy was approached to provide music for Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete, a bright corner of mid-’90s television, about the surreal adventures of the identically named Wrigley brothers and the townspeople of Wellsville. A kid’s show from the same generation-crossing world as Rocky and Bullwinkle and
The show used music by Magnetic Fields and Apples in Stereo, but mainly Polaris, which was Mulcahy and the Drenched rhythm section of Scott Boutier and Dave McCaffrey. Typical of the late-’80s/early-’90s jangle pop of the Vulgar Boatmen, Let’s Active, Love Tractor and seemingly the entire city of Athens, Georgia, Polaris played breezy, charming stuff that got shoved aside by the alt.rock revolution and never really made a comeback. In the show’s context, Polaris’ music summed up the feelings of lazy summers, first crushes and the excitement of discovering music. Out of that context, Music From The Adventures of Pete & Pete still holds up extremely well as an artifact of old-school college rock. “Hey Sandy,” which served as the show’s theme song, in particular stands out. It’s an insanely catchy power pop confection: a great choice for a TV theme song, but also a fairly strange one (especially for a kid’s show), given that its lyrics apparently deal with the Kent State massacre. (Of course, one of the show’s overarching themes was the International Adult Conspiracy’s war on kid-dom, so maybe it does make sense.) Polaris figured prominently in one episode as a nameless garage band whose song “Summerbaby” inspired younger Pete to embark on an epic jam session with Crenshaw, Straw and a kid with muttonchops in an attempt to recreate the song.
Miracle Legion returned a few years later with Portrait of a Damaged Family, while Boutier and McCaffrey went on to join Frank Black and the Catholics.