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Miracle Legion’s Top 10 Songs

In celebration of New Haven's finest's reunion, we handpick their finest tunes

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    Photo by Kenneth Bachor

    Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.  

    Most articles about Mark Mulcahy, Polaris, or Miracle Legion take on a similar tone. They tell a tale tinged with disappointment, one of underappreciated talent, rough breaks, and falling just short of a dream after coming tantalizingly close to it. This isn’t one of those pieces.

    This list is about the dozens of people I’ve met who found The Backyard or Surprise Surprise Surprise in their youth and carried it with them into adulthood. It’s about several older friends still able to vividly describe a Miracle Legion show they attended 30 years ago. It’s about a frontman who opened up Thom Yorke to new ideas about songwriting and singing. It’s about a guitarist who helped inspire Ryan Adams to pick up an acoustic guitar. It’s about two friends who reinvented themselves as a duo after losing their rhythm section and came back as a full band with their most experimental album to date after being left for dead in major label purgatory. It’s not a story many bands would script out for themselves, but it’s one worth telling — even if to an audience of thousands rather than millions.

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    In anticipation of Miracle Legion’s upcoming reunion show at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, we pored over a catalog we love and came up with these 10 songs. They’re songs we wear like comfortable, old clothes, and yet they continue to tug and catch when we put them on, as if to let us know there’s still something else left to be discovered, confronted, or appreciated in them. Really, that’s what this article is about: a batch of damn-good songs far too meaningful to ever leave us feeling disappointed.

    –Matt Melis
    Editorial Director

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    10. “A Heart Disease Called Love”

    Glad EP (1988)

    Typical. Hype a band’s songwriting prowess and then throw a cover song into their top 10. But “A Heart Disease Called Love” just sounds like a Miracle Legion song. Originally by punk poet John Cooper Clarke, the band’s version pumps warm and steady — just shy of a country flavor — and places Mulcahy out on the edge of the world to self-diagnosis. The last minutes turn into a duet between Mr. Ray Neal’s nudging guitars and Mulcahy’s lonely harmonica, and the listener can picture the latter slowly coming into view, either holding hope or his own heart in his hand. I’m never quite sure which one.

    –Matt Melis

    They’re Out to Play:


    09. “Closer to the Wall”

    The Backyard EP (1984)

    “When I listen back, we were a lot more grindy or hard than we get thought of as,” Mulcahy told me earlier this year. “There was an edge of danger,” added Neal. “Closer to the Wall”, the second track off the band’s debut, should have forever put the label “jangle pop” to rest. Mulcahy sounds buried up to his neck in sand, doing all he can to be heard over his frantic bandmates before finally admitting defeat as Mr. Ray’s reeling guitar and Jeff Wiederschall’s drums rally and collide during the song’s last frenzied rush. And the word “wall” being repeated as cymbals crash at the end? That might as well be the sound of Mulcahy’s head banging against a concrete wall until he passes out. Jangle pop, my ass.

    –Matt Melis

    They’re Out to Play:


    08. “Homer”

    Portrait of a Damaged Family (1997)

    A duet between Mulcahy’s wistful vocals and Mr. Ray’s glowing guitar, “Homer” may feel a bit out of place on Portrait of a Damaged Family. And yet, the simple exchanges between the two and the lyrical imagery of fathers, sons, and boyhood heroes ground the band’s most eccentric album. It’s a callback to the sparseness and subject matter of earlier work, but also a reminder that there’s something special when Mulcahy and Mr. Ray come together. As Mulcahy reflected, “Playing alongside Ray is always going to feel right, especially when we start playing those Miracle Legion songs.” During the choruses of “Homer”, Mulcahy laments: “With just a little more, she’d have been a homer.” From the clip below, it’s clear that when he and Neal play together, rarely does the ball die on the warning track.

    –Matt Melis

    They’re Out to Play:


    07. “Country Boy”

    Surprise Surprise Surprise (1987)

    “I’m not ready to go,” Mulcahy pines in the angsty chorus of “Country Boy”, and one can’t help but feel the same way while listening. Wedged right in the middle of Surprise Surprise Surprise, this bubbly slice of alternative rock thrives from a lush collage of sounds that probably made R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills blush back in 1987. Mulcahy’s haunting poetry (“But there I see the old man/ With the old style oil lantern/ Burning brightly down at the end of the hall/ But that was way back”) floats delicately over horns, acoustics, and Joel Potocsky’s soul-searching bass lines. No, you’re right, Mark, let’s wait a little longer.

    –Michael Roffman

    They’re Out to Play:


    06. “Snacks and Candy”

    Drenched (1992)

    Thanks to its title and punchy cadence, it’s easy to write off “Snacks and Candy” as a sugary pop song. But really, it’s actually one of Mulcahy’s more politically-charged anthems. Based on the 1989 killing of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst, New York, the track is carried out through the eyes of one of the racist white supremacists who attacked the black teenager outside of a sweet shop. The song’s subversive melodies, however, were not intentional, as Neal told The LA Times: “You couldn’t hear what Mark was singing, just the words ‘snacks and candy.’ We thought it was an upbeat song, so we were making it sound more and more pop.” Sometimes it takes a little chaos to get a little clarity.

    –Michael Roffman

    They’re Out to Play:


    05. “The Ladies from Town”

    Me and Mr. Ray (1989)

    Go figure. When Mulcahy and Mr. Ray lost their rhythm section and were forced to reinvent themselves as a duo, that’s when they stumbled upon their most irresistible jam. Harmonica, guitar, and drums take turns square-dancing and dueling with each other, the words flickering on Mulcahy’s tongue as alight as the song’s lyrical house. And don’t bother trying to resist. “Ladies” always elicits echoes of “ladies from town” from audiences during its choruses and never fails to trigger an involuntary dance session when Mulcahy’s final harmonica breakdown closes things out. This is one lady everyone wants to dance with.

    –Matt Melis

    They’re Out to Play:


    04. “So Good”

    Drenched (1992)

    The breadcrumbs to Polaris and their anthemic ballads for The Adventures of Pete and Pete pretty much start with “So Good”. Between the nostalgic imagery (“Ribbons in your hair, they were never there”) and Mulcahy’s ’50s croon (“And everyday must I wait on you hand and foot?”), the song begs for the tree-lined streets of the Wrigley’s fictional hometown of Wellsville. That’s not much of a revelation as it is a fact since everyone in Miracle Legion sans Neal would move from Morgan Creek to Nickelodeon shortly after Drenched. Still, the song’s a remarkably produced ballad that bruises with emotion. So good.

    –Michael Roffman

    They’re Out to Play:


    03. “You’re the One Lee”

    Me and Mr. Ray (1989)

    “When I hear that song, it sounds like a real record,” Mr. Ray explained, citing “You’re the One Lee” as one of his first songs that felt equal to what he’d been hearing on radio. It’s not false modesty either. As much as previous records had touched listeners, Me and Mr. Ray found the guitarist digging beneath a well-scratched surface to figure out what he could really do in a studio. The result is a lush and beautiful song whose apparent minimalism belies its many layers of over-dubbed guitars. Couple that with a pining Mulcahy ending on a line like “I close my eyes and hold my ears and walk up to a broken heart,” and you have a song that immediately feels familiar and never loses poignancy.

    –Matt Melis

    They’re Out to Play:


    02. “The Backyard”

    The Backyard EP (1984)

    Mr. Ray recalled that “The Backyard” — the song that broke Miracle Legion — only got written a few days before the band went into the studio and was laid down almost as an afterthought. Thank goodness for eleventh-hour songwriting and some extra studio time to kill. “’The Backyard’ is a memoir, I suppose,” Mulcahy said. “It’s just about being a little kid and growing up. I assume a lot of people had a backyard, so it’s easy to relate to on that level.” Easy to relate to, yes. Simple, not really. Mulcahy often draws upon images from childhood, but these types of songs seem to meet fans halfway. The band provide the backyard, but it’s the listeners who determine the emotions and, of course, the particular voice that “was always the loudest of all.”

    –Matt Melis

    They’re Out to Play:


    01. “All for the Best”

    Surprise Surprise Surprise (1987)

    “All for the Best” recalls that old house you grew up in, but can’t visit anymore. The one whose creaky, wooden floors served as a temporary bed for lucid daydreams on balmy afternoons and whose walls have seen everything from hope to heartbreak. It’s a simple song — startlingly simple, in fact — but life lessons are traditionally uncomplicated, and that’s what this feels like: a meandering meditation on past pitfalls and would-be triumphs. “You just hear the lines a bit, and you understand it for yourself,” Mulcahy said of the Surprise Surprise Surprise gem. “There’s not a hidden anything. You don’t have to know every word to understand what’s happening in a song. Those are great songs.” And rest assured, it is a great song.

    –Michael Roffman

    They’re Out to Play:

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