Music Review: Marcy Playground’s “Leaving Wonderland…in a fit of rage”

RATING:  3 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

To be honest, Marcy Playground is a band I had forgotten about, leaving them behind in a hazy collection of other nineties modern rock one hit wonders.

Out of sheer curiosity, I felt the urge to hear this most recent album from the “Sex and Candy” singer — it was originally slated as a John Wozniak solo project — that I came across on the Newbury Comics new release rack.  (It certainly didn’t hurt that the disc came with a free download of their previous album, the aptly titled third release from the band: MP3.)

I didn’t expect much, considering that over a decade had passed since I had heard a song from the band.  I always liked “Sex and Candy,” but even in 1997 I knew it was a fairly straightforward track made notable only by its provocative lyrics and Wozniak’s low, unique vocal tones.

What I got was a solid album comprised predominantly of an artist’s exploration of the roots of his music.  Throughout Leaving Wonderland…in a fit of rage, Wozniak’s songwriting is simple and the band’s arrangements are as standard as they come.

When I use the term “solid,” I mean that Marcy Playground’s fourth release is comprised of generally enjoyable songs placed in an effective order to not only keep the listener’s attention, but also to contribute to a largely common set of themes.

And, yes, beyond all these qualifications that I am making, there exists the realization that a “solid” album may be listened to and even appreciated, but it is nothing special.

As with their late nineties single, one of the greatest strengths of the album is Wozniak’s signature vocals.  Throughout the album, he weaves tales of sorrow, loss, and reconsideration.  Whatever “Wonderland” represents for Marcy Playground’s John Wozniak — a relationship or fame to name just a couple possibilities — the exit from said Wonderland is indeed a violent one, soaked in booze and drugs and, at times, literally marked by flames.

“Blackbird,” the opening track and the first US single, sets the tone for what is a heavily acoustic record, a notable departure from their previous release.  “Irene” and “Memphis” are so acoustic and rootsy that they sound as though they were snatched from a decades old country/folk record.

Meanwhile, the album is spiced up by tracks like “Devil Woman” and “Good Times” — the first Canadian single — which are predominantly acoustic, and yet endowed with a heavy beat and a set of catchy vocals.

Of course, the album is not without its electric touches.  “I Must Have Been Dreaming” is a clean and catchy cut, but “I Burned the Bed” and “Emperor” are drenched in distortion and lie at the heart of this album, both thematically and musically.  “Gin and Money” offers the complete package — opening with a nearly tribal beat, subtle but integral piano, and acoustic fingerpicking before kicking into high gear with a little feedback and a lot of spirited vocals and electric guitar.

Overall, I score this album as a “Maybe Not.”  I’m glad I bought it, and I’ve listened to it almost twenty times already.  I truly enjoy many of the tracks, and Wozniak has crafted the order to ebb and flow at just the right times.

However, what doesn’t hit home with me is the simplicity of the lyrics — referring to himself directly in “Good Times,” taking the bright and instantly-stuck-in-your-head “Star Baby” and crippling it with cheesiness, and feeding into some middle school-worthy rhymes in “Thank You,” to name a few instances.  This is my most significant criticism; even the largely predictable arrangements fit within the larger context of the album.

This is an album about coming to terms with the universal thematic subject matter of love and youth lost, of having to grow up after having lost something to the ravages of time.  If you can look past the simplicity of many of the thoughts being conveyed, then this album is worth a listen.

If not, then it might be time for you to go back to the classics — Dylan, Beatles, etc.  Or at least to last year’s Counting Crows album.

The Weekend Review: June 2012 Report

By Chris Moore:

That’s Why God Made the Radio  (The Beach Boys)

Producer: Brian Wilson

Released: June 5, 2012

Rating:  5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Spring Vacation” & “From There to Back Again”

For anyone who has ears to listen, That’s Why God Made the Radio is deserving of a place among the all-time classic masterpieces in the Beach Boys’ catalog of albums and songs.  For the moment, it has served nicely as the masthead for the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary reunion, but it should be recognized as more than that.  That’s Why God Made the Radio is a reminder: that truly great bands can continue to be great, releasing new music fifty years after first forming.  It is also interesting to juxtapose this album with other recent releases, and there’s clearly still something for other bands to learn, most notably – as it’s always been – from the vocal arrangements the Beach Boys continue to be capable of pulling off.  There’s a warmth and an energy here that is somewhat shocking considering that their previous two releases – both from the early nineties – lacked the consistency, overall quality, and (frankly) the drive of this most recent album.  Consider also what three of the five original Beach Boys have been up to for decades: Mike Love and Bruce Johnston have been in full “greatest hits” touring mode and have shown no previous interest in revisiting the recording studio, while David Marks has been absent from the popular music scene save for guest appearances and low-scale projects.  When you add in the fact that the paperwork from the lawsuits traded between Beach Boys could fill a medium-sized library, it is incredible that this album was attempted at all.  To truly contextualize it, the listening becomes all the more unbelievable: there is a warmth in the harmonies that defies belief.  “Daybreak Over the Ocean,” in particular, could have been a hit when the Beach Boys were in their prime, showcasing as it does the best of what they are capable vocally.  (Of course, they’re aided in no small part by Mike Love’s family, particularly his son whose range and tone is the closest to Carl I’ve heard since Carl passed.)  For those who have followed Brian Wilson and, most recently, Al Jardine, it perhaps comes as less of a surprise that this album should be possible.  After all, Wilson has been consistently productive since 2004’s Getting’ in Over My Head and SMiLE releases, going on to release a masterful solo release in That Lucky Old Sun (2008) as well as numerous other projects of interest.  Then, Al Jardine released his first solo album in 2010, signaling that Wilson was not the only surviving Beach Boy to show interest in making new music and putting it down on record.  Still, for Mike Love and Brian Wilson to team up again and still be able to contribute to such high-quality, single-worthy tracks as the upbeat, rocking “Spring Vacation,” the catchy, gorgeous “Isn’t It Time” (which has already inspired a radio version remix), and the title track nearly defies belief.  Critics will write this effort off as yet another surf-inspired album of formulaic tunes, but this could not be further from the truth.  That this record begins with the a cappella “Think About the Days” is practically a mission statement from the start: clearly, That’s Why God Made the Radio is not a greatest-hits extension of predictable tracks; rather, it is another artistic and visionary installment in the Beach Boys catalog.  Certainly, there are lyrical echoes of what the Beach Boys have been known for since their first work in the early 1960s, but who would expect or even want a complete break from the images, metaphors, and motifs that have enabled them to carve a signature place in popular American music since their star?  And, if there are still any detractors after the powerhouse represented by tracks two through four, then they should be directed to the lush vocals and sharply poignant tone of the final trio of songs: “From There to Back Again,” “Pacific Coast Highway,” and “Summer’s Gone.”  If the first trio are the songs you’ll want to hear again and again while driving, windows down, then this second trio are the heart and soul, the foundation even, for That’s Why God Made the Radio: these final tracks present the thesis, the reason for recording a new album, and perhaps an explanation of why and how the Beach Boys continue to have emotional pull all these years later.




Safe Travels  (Jukebox the Ghost)

Producer: Dan Romer

Released: June 12, 2012

Rating:  4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Oh, Emily” & “Ghosts in Empty Houses”

For their third album, Jukebox the Ghost returns with all the same energy that has propelled their first two releases – the dynamic Let Live and Let Ghosts (2008) and the more artful Everything Under the Sun – yet a unique feel, largely achieved through their attention to the traditional rock music ingredients as well as more orchestral elements.  Some tracks, the almost Beatles-esque acoustic “Man on the Moon” for instance, sound unlike anything they’ve produced previously.  The songs suffer at times from a repetition that goes for too long, but Safe Travels is otherwise a pristine record marked by energetic instrumental force and passionately driven vocals, as well as touches of innovation that remind listeners that Jukebox the Ghost is a band interested in growing, progressing, not content to occupy their niche.   With any luck, the world at large will take note, though it seems that more often the one-hit wonders are enabled.




The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do  (Fiona Apple)

Producer: Fiona Apple & Charley Drayton

Released: June 19, 2012

Rating:  5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Left Alone” & “Daredevil”

True to form, Fiona Apple continues to defy expectations and ignore conventions, starting with the unwieldy title of her latest album: The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.  Furthermore, her first single, the album-opener “Every Single Night,” is hardly going to make it onto the popular music charts any time soon.  However, though quirky and slow-paced upon an initial listen, one would be unwise to write The Idler Wheel off so easily when, lurking just beneath the surface, there is a current of emotion and the power of poetry in each and every track on Apple’s new album.  Lyrically alone, The Idler Wheel is an achievement, and the lyric booklet – packaged as a composition notebook with lyrics and drawings – could stand alone.  Apple’s vocal delivery is compelling, as her voice alternately drips with desperate passion and shakes and scrapes with raw emotion (see: “Regret”).  Instrumentally, it is as though the piano is engaged in a duet the various layers of percussion at work.  Never before have I heard percussion used in quite this manner, practically as an instrument in the foreground rather than a foundation or support for other instruments.  Even Apple’s distinctive piano, integral as ever, is not the most interesting instrumental element for perhaps the first time in her catalog; her playing borders on riff-driven, holding the songs together as the vocals and percussion shake and stretch the parameters of each track.  Overall, though 2005’s Extraordinary Machine is more to my liking for speed and style, The Idler Wheel is an indisputable masterpiece.