The Upshot: Vinyl-only reissue for Record Store Day finds Mark Mulcahy and Mr. Ray revisiting an underappreciated chapter in the beloved band’s history—a history that, apparently, has yet to be finished.
BY FRED MILLS
For all you fellow lapsed college rock fans out there, this note’s for you: New Haven’s Miracle Legion recently announced, improbably enough, that they were getting back together to mark the 20th anniversary of the M.L. swansong, 1996’s Portrait of a Damaged Family. With summer concerts in the UK and the UK on the horizon (in addition to cofounders Mark Mulcahy, vocals, and Ray “Mr. Ray” Neal, guitars, bassist Dave McCaffrey and drummer Scott Boutier will be on hand), not to mention the group’s back catalog slated for digital reissue (both The Backyard EP and the Surprise, Surprise, Surprise LP are on Spotify already), there is also the little matter of the aforementioned swansong.
Originally a proverbial “soft” (read: budget-challenged) release courtesy Mulcahy’s then-newly-established Mezzotint label, Portrait of a Damaged Family gets life anew for Record Store Day 2016 in a limited edition vinyl format that, for longtime fans such as yours truly, virtually ensures getting in line at an indie record store of choice in hopes of snagging a copy. Why? Well, as I noted a few years ago when BLURT paid tribute to the band, detailing its history and how it split up in ’96 in the face of a frustrating affair with their record label (Morgan Creek, whose ham-fisted handling of 1992’s Drenched revealed the label to be not much more than a vanity excursion into the music biz from some film biz dilettantes), Mulcahy moved on to acclaim as a solo artist and with Polaris (of Pete and Pete TV show fame). Meanwhile, his guitar-slinging foil Mr. Ray also went solo but eventually seemed to dip off the radar and was presumed AWOL in the UK. But for true believers, there was always a whiff of unfinished business, and the fact that Portrait never seemed to get more than a cursory glance from even the most diligent rock critics—in 1996, everyone was listening to, what, Tool? Sublime? Everclear? No Fucking Doubt?!?—almost justified the band’s decision to call it quits, because against those then-current odds, anybody with a remotely refined sense of melody and lyricism was just asking for an alt-rock beatdown. Ask me sometime about working in a CD store at that time, and what both the customers and my co-workers were into. It was pretty grim.
With 20 years’ worth of hindsight and two decades’ worth of sonic seasoning, though, Portrait emerges as sonic and thematic victor amid all the cultural detritus of the Nineties. Fully remastered for this vinyl-only release, and boasting a wonderful previously unreleased bonus track (“The Depot”), it suggests that, rather than going out on a sad note, the group, had it opted to continue rather than fold, might’ve gone on to a fresh peak.
Portrait kicks off with “You’re My Blessing,” a plangent paean to faith and fortitude well within the sonic parameters previously established by the band. Then they start tossing curveballs here and there: organ-powered carny waltz “Screamin’,” the lilting lounge-jazz-pop of “Say I Had a Lovely Time,” strummy/uptempo strutter “I Wish I Was Danny Kaye” (it practically screams for Kaye himself to pop out from the wings to do a little vaudeville soft-shoe routine), a bluesy “Good for Her” that shows off a rarely-viewed heavy side to the band.
But fear not, longtime ML acolytes: there are also plenty of jangles from Mr. Ray, plenty of purposeful propulsion from the McCaffrey-Boutier rhythm section, plenty of part-winsome/part-eccentric flourishes by Mulcahy. Chief among the familiar musical delights: the gentle, understated, shantylike Brit-folk stylings of “Homer” (listen for Mulcahy’s little whispered asides amid his sing-songy vocals) and dramatic rocker “Accidentally on Purpose,” which is pure ML anthemism, awash in Neal’s strident power chords and blustery solo, and Mulcahy’s swaggering inflections.
“I never knew a head could be so hard,” Mulcahy blurts in the latter, which could almost serve as a lyrical metaphor for the band itself. These were determined, stubborn guys who became one of the era’s greats through sheer force of personality—and then they simply stopped, tired of beating those hard heads against the moving target that was the music biz wall. Welcome back, gents. Lord, we’ve missed ya.
DOWNLOAD: “Accidentally on Purpose,” “You’re My Blessing,” “Homer,” “The Depot”