The Backyard – Miracle Legion (1984)

The Backyard album cover
The Backyard album cover

The rapid rise of R.E.M. from college radio to the top of the pop charts left many similar sounding bands in their wake. Slight regional variations lent some distinctions between bands like Grant Lee Buffalo from California or The Connells in North Carolina. A few of the bands to follow the emergence of R.E.M. managed to stake out new territory, while retaining elements that prompted the comparisons in the first place.

One band based hundreds of miles from Athens, GA carved out their own version of the “R.E.M. Sound”. The Connecticut based Miracle Legion managed to distinguish themselves as more than just another R.E.M. clone. Led by Mark Mulcathy and Ray Neal, Miracle Legion crafted a version of the “Southern sound” that was scruffy and fuzzy, but in a warm non-threatening way. That warmth came mostly from themes related to the wonderment of childhood and the exploration of adolescence.

The bands second recording, a 6 song EP called  The Backyard established them well beyond New England where they had already gained a solid reputation thanks to college radio and solid stage performances. The critics had taken notice, and soon the rest of the world would too (England in particular). While they probably got tired to being compared to that band in Georgia, the comparison was only relevant in the early parts of both band’s careers.

The EP’s title track was about Mulachy’s childhood and the video with its fuzzy super 8 home video look recalled the thrills of being a kid. That energy was what drove much of The Backyard, making it a hit on college radio and MTV’s 120 Minutes late night show. Like Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Muchuly’s vocals were somewhat obscured at times. Not by deliberate vocal tricks, but by a blurred mix sometimes obscured by backing vocals. The effect was not the kind of gothic spookiness heard on R.E.M.’s Murmer or Reckoning, but more a happier sounding abstraction.  Further juxtaposition of subject matter and tempo were enhanced due to the album being made up of mostly mid-tempo songs.  The effect was a kind of honesty and innocence, a trait lacking in many of the angst driven music of their contemporaries.

The Backyard was not all fuzzy happy nostalgia. Songs like “Closer to the Wall” had moments of punk rebellion as if to suggest a child’s tantrum.  Miracle Legion would move ever so slightly away from the initial sound made popular by R.E.M. and would carve a new path for jangley college rock music. The Backyard remains their most critically acclaimed recording and captures the rawness of the band at a moment where they were potentially about to break into the big time. That big break never happened sadly, but the band continued to record a string of critically acclaimed albums through the 90s. To recognize the efforts of Mark Mulcahy  and Miracle Legion, a tribute album Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy was made in 2009. Mulcahy continues to record the occasional solo project.

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