At the end of this month, alt-rock outfit Miracle Legion are playing their final dates together, including a date this Friday at New York's Bowery Ballroom and two closing dates on April 28-29 in California. It seemed right to shine a little light on a band that, without warning, has come to mean a great deal to me.
Like most late twentysomethings, my exposure to Miracle Legion and its frontman Mark Mulcahy came in the form of another band: Polaris, three-fourths of Miracle Legion which came together to record original songs for the cult classic Nickelodeon series The Adventures of Pete & Pete. (It is they who lodged the jangly earworm of a theme, "Hey Sandy," in every millennial's cerebrum.) A recent wave of Pete nostalgia led me to catch a Polaris show a few years ago, where I was taken aback by how solidly fun the songs still were (as evidenced on a 1999 album the group released, recently issued on vinyl for Record Store Day) and what a vital frontman Mulcahy was.
When Miracle Legion (Mulcahy, guitarist Mr. Ray Neal, bassist Dave McCaffrey and drummer Scott Boutier) reformed in support of a reissue of their final album, 1996's Portrait of a Damaged Family, I caught two shows (an intimate Mulcahy-Neal duo show at the defunct Cake Shop and a full band gig at Brooklyn's Bell House) and was simply dazzled by their performances. The New Haven-raised quartet, feted by '80s alternative pop geeks, are most often cited for their jangly, R.E.M.-esque sound and influence on a certain sort of introspective, opaque songwriter (chiefly Thom Yorke of Radiohead, one of the biggest names on a Mulcahy tribute album released a decade ago). But those honorifics only tend to tell part of the story.
Miracle Legion, like Polaris after them, spun sugar-sweet melodies tinged with reckless, youthful abandon and married them with lyrics of deep wonder and longing--the sonic equivalent of a last, wistful summer with a partner or a fun if emotionally panged, idle flip through an old yearbook. With Mulcahy gamely playing the role of mystic frontman--punctuating his lyrics with unpredictable onstage jigs or blasts of harmonica while singing in a clear tone that time has not aged--and co-pilot Neal precisely picking his way through the gorgeous melodies he often co-wrote, I've found Miracle Legion shows to be a transformative experience, and will mourn their end (though not without the enjoyment of a live album, Annulment, culled in part from the Bell House show I was lucky to witness).
While Miracle Legion may be mothballed, Mulcahy remains active as ever, releasing his latest solo album, The Possum in the Driveway, this week (with a vinyl version part of this year's Record Store Day festivities). As is so often the case, I believe the best way to remember the band is through a healthy catalogue presence--and here, as a fan, I find myself wanting more.
Not long after Portrait of a Damaged Family was released, Miracle Legion (through Mulcahy's Mezzotint label) put the balance of their back catalogue--the 1984 EP The Backyard, studio albums Surprise Surprise Surprise (1987), Me and Mr. Ray (1989) and Drenched (1992), plus Drenched sampler We Are All Lost--on Bandcamp for stream or download. Unfortunately, the offering outside of Bandcamp is more meager, with only The Backyard, Surprise Surprise Surprise and Portrait of a Damaged Family gracing iTunes or Spotify. And even Bandcamp is incomplete, with 1983's self-released cassette debut A Simple Thing and 1988's studio-plus-live EP Glad missing in action. CD lovers, too are left out in the cold: only Miracle Legion's last three studio albums have ever been released on the format in America (Surprise Surprise Surprise got a CD release in Japan).
For a band on the way out, it may be too much to ask at present for a reset on their discographical offerings. (Mulcahy said as much in a recent interview.) But someday, one can only hope this well-kept secret of a band gets some sort of expanded offering to entice current and future fans with. In that spirit--in tribute to a band that's made me very happy over the past few years--I've put on our Reissue Theory helmet and imagined four releases that would put the band's pre-Damaged Family output on the right track.
A Simple Thing / The Backyard
The first Miracle Legion releases featured Mulcahy and Neal alongside bassist Joel Potocsky and drummer Jeff Wiederschall and were released by Bridgeport, Connecticut-based indie Incas Records. Cassette debut A Simple Thing featured early versions of "Stephen, Are You There?" (re-recorded for The Backyard) and "All for the Best," a standout favorite later heard on Surprise Surprise Surprise. The title track of The Backyard, by happy accident, earned attention from college radio and a low-budget video was put in MTV's nascent rotation, setting the stage for more highs.
An ideal reissue would see both EPs combined onto one release, with three non-LP cuts including a two-sided Christmas single that became their first release for a rising indie label, Rough Trade Records.
- Fight to Fight
- Little Man
- All for the Best
- Stephen, Are You There?
- The Heroes Calling
- The Backyard
- Closer to the Wall
- Just Say Hello
- The Heart is Attached
- Stephen, Are You There? (Second)
- Little Drummer Boy
- Blue Christmas
- Until She Talks
Tracks 1-6 released as A Simple Thing - Incas Records cassette, 1983
Tracks 7-12 released as The Backyard - Incas Records EP ML-1, 1984
Tracks 13-14 released as Rough Trade/Incas Records single RTUS-007, 1985
Track 15 released on "The Heart is Attached" single - Closer Records CL-0751, 1985
Surprise Surprise Surprise / Glad
A successful U.K. tour earned the attention of Rough Trade Records (best known as the home of The Smiths) and a stronger distribution system on two sides of the Atlantic. The group, which traded Potocsky for Steven West, recorded their first full-length, punctuated by killer cuts like "All for the Best," "Mr. Mingo," and "Country Boy." Another EP, Glad, featured a cover of punk poet John Cooper Clarke's "A Heart Disease Called Love" and a portion of a set at The Ritz in New York, the gem of which is an all-out version of The Backyard cut "Closer to the Wall" with Pere Ubu joining the group onstage. This imagined reissue combines those two releases with bonus tracks including two cassette-only bonus cuts and a live version of "Glad" from a flexidisc.
- Mr. Mingo
- All for the Best
- Country Boy
- Crooked Path
- Everyone In Heaven
- Little Man
- Will You Wait
- Academy Fight Song
- A Heart Disease Called Love
- Hey, Lucky
- Butterflies (Live @ The Ritz, New York City - 11/7/1987)
- Mr. Mingo (Live @ The Ritz, New York City - 11/7/1987)
- Wonderment (Live @ The Ritz, New York City - 11/7/1987)
- Closer to the Wall (with Pere Ubu) (Live @ The Ritz, New York City - 11/7/1987)
- Glad (Live!)
Tracks 1-10 released as Surprise Surprise Surprise - Rough Trade LP ROUGH US-27, 1987
Tracks 11-12 released as bonus tracks on Rough Trade cassette ROUGH US-27C, 1987
Tracks 13-19 released as Glad - Rough Trade EP ROUGH US-34, 1988
Track 20 from The Bob Magazine issue #33 flexidisc, 1988
Me and Mr. Ray
After Glad, West and Wiederschall left Miracle Legion, leaving the group to a duo. Far from a disaster, though, the songs on Me and Mr. Ray, recorded at Paisley Park Studios, are some of their strongest works, with the wistful "Ladies from Town" and the devotional "You're the One Lee" particular favorites. This period was also fairly prolific, with extra tracks galore from 12" singles, a Byrds tribute album and a collection sponsored by U.K. zine Bucketfull of Brains.
- The Ladies from Town
- And Then?
- Old & New
- Sailors and Animals
- If She Could Cry
- Pull the Wagon
- You're the One-Lee
- Even Better
- Cold Shoulder Balcony
- Giant Transatlantic Trunk Call
- Mr. Space Man
- All the Things
- Johnny's Dilemma
- You're the Only
Tracks 1-10 from Me and Mr. Ray - Rough Trade LP ROUGH US-136, 1989
Tracks 11-12 from Time Between - A Tribute to The Byrds - Communion Label COMM-11, 1989
Tracks 13-14 from "You're the One Lee" U.K. 12" single - Rough Trade RTT-226, 1989
Track 15 from Time Will Show the Wiser - The Bucketful of Brains Collection - Imaginary/Triad Records TRI-001 (U.K.), 1989
The early '90s were a one-step-forward, one-step-back time for Miracle Legion. They added a rhythm section (McCaffrey and Boutier) but lost a label (Rough Trade declared bankruptcy in 1991), then gained a label (Morgan Creek Records, offshoot of the burgeoning film production company behind the hit Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) which endured its own financial issues that kept the band in considerable limbo (a limbo buoyed by the Polaris project for Nickelodeon). It's a shame that Drenched, produced by John Porter, didn't get a wider audience, with "So Good," "Out to Play" and the peppy "Snacks and Candy" highlights on an album full of them. Extra tracks abound, too, including covers of David Bowie and Mission of Burma plus an early version of "Homer," from the group's final studio album, heard here on the soundtrack to the college comedy A Matter of Degrees.
- Sea Hag
- Snacks and Candy
- So Good
- Everything is Rosy
- With a Wish
- Little Blue Light
- Out to Play
- Waiting Room
- Over to Hell
- Ziggy Stardust
- Down, Down, Down: So Good Gone Bad
- Homer (Original Version)
- Academy Fight Song (New Version)
Tracks 1-11 from Drenched - Morgan Creek Records CD 2959-20006-2, 1992
Tracks 12-14 from "Out to Play" promo EP - Morgan Creek Records MCPRO 0023-2, 1992
Tracks 15-16 from A Matter of Degrees: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - Atlantic 82245, 1991