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.
An articulate album that considers romance, religion and racism with formidable melodic intelligence, Drenched sheds old baggage (but finds the group gaining a resemblance to the Waterboys) to reach creative adulthood. Mulcahy and Neal write skillfully in a variety of styles, from courtly pop to driving rock ‘n’ roll, light romance to acid irony. Producer John Porter, whose credits include Bryan Ferry and the Smiths, is an ideal collaborator: the diverse arrangements (many smartly incorporating guest keyboardist Ian McLagan) make for an emotional rollercoaster, a masterfully organized sequence of curves, dips and surprises that provides a satisfying, affecting ride. “Sea Hag,” a handsome waltz with a rowdy bar-room chorus, sets up “Snacks and Candy,” a depiction of Yusuf Hawkins’ Bensonhurst murder which uses merry pop ambiance to convey the casual banality of mob violence. In another striking juxtaposition, the delicate “So Good” precedes “Everything Is Rosy,” a sardonic, raucous rock number set to a “Kashmir” beat and sung through clenched teeth.
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 <Pee-wee’s Playhouse, it allowed kids to enjoy the silliness while adults got into the sly wit, pop-culture references (how many kid’s shows parodied Reservoir Dogs?) and an impossibly hip roster of guest stars: Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Buscemi, Richard Edson, Kate Pierson (as the Blind Millionaire), LL Cool J, Syd Straw (math teacher Miss Fingerwood), Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Janeane Garofolo, Michael Stipe (disturbing ice cream man Captain Scrummy), Marshall Crenshaw, Adam West, Luscious Jackson and others, including some of the earliest appearances of future notables Heather Matarazzo and Michelle Trachtenberg.
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.