Overlooked: Marcy Playground
Overlooked are shorter playlists and write-ups that focus on artists that didn’t get the attention their music deserved during their time. Click on the streaming service of your choice below to listen to the playlist as you read along.
The late 1990s, much like the late 1980s, was a bleak period for modern rock. One of the few bright lights during that period was Marcy Playground and their stellar debut, self-titled album. They are best known as a one-hit wonder for “Sex and Candy,” a song that pushed beyond the alternative scene (#1 on the US Alternative chart) and crested at #8 in the US, #2 in Canada, and #29 in the UK. The album reached #21 in the US, a solid achievement for a modern rock act at the time and deservedly so. They went on to release a total of four albums over the next dozen years, mostly rehashing the same sound of their debut but to more mixed results, and as a result have largely faded from view. They are touring once again in 2018 and will hit Toronto in early June.
Singer/guitarist John Wozniak released a self-recorded and produced album in the early 90s before attending Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. He then moved to New York and teamed up with Jared Kotler and began recording demos, which were good enough to gain the interest of Capitol Records and establish a presence in the New York music scene, where they played with new band member, Dylan Keefe on bass. The band was named after John’s childhood school, Marcy Open grade school in Minneapolis. During this time John and Jared had a falling out, and after being signed by Capitol and as they headed into the recording studio, Dan Rieser had joined as the new drummer. It was the trio of John, Dylan, and Dan that recorded the first album. Over the course of the ensuing albums the band has more-or-less been a solo project of Wozniak’s with sometimes contributions of Keefe and other hired hands. Today Shlomie Lavie is on board as the drummer.
Marcy Playground is a fantastic album, with a mix of grungy rockers, lovely acoustic ballads, and more hooks than you can shake a stick at. Wozniak’s Minnesotan and northwestern roots ring through as the songs embody the spirit of the pop-rock sound of the 1990s. John seems to like to employ an effect on his voice that sounds great but has overstayed its welcome over their career. When he sings straight-up it’s a nice change. His voice isn’t remarkable, but capable and distinctive enough that the songs have character. His guitar-work favours little turns that grab your ear and make your turn up the volume. The slower tunes are the kind you put on while hanging on the deck (or dock?) with a few beers on a sunny weekend – it’s kick back and chill music. And then there are the more majestic moments, when the band kicks into epic sequences that come crashing down in classic, grunge-style catharsis. I love that first album and it still gets played often in my world.
The second album was solid, but not as remarkable. It has a few great tunes, but lacks the charisma of “Sex and Candy,” the slacker anthem from the first album that created a peak that Marcy Playground could never conquer again. It was a song that in some respects paid rest to the grunge and slacker era, the last gasp of a dying genre. Yet the second album still stands up and can be listened through without regret. The final song, “Our Generation” is a fantastic ballad, yet is spoiled for this playlist since it has several minutes of empty space in order to accommodate a useless hidden track – an abomination of the 90s that should be rendered to the dustbins of history (side note rant: iTunes used to allow editing of tracks so such songs could be edited down to their enjoyable length, a feature that has been sadly removed). And that’s why Marcy Playground is overlooked, they weren’t outstanding, but were tremendously consistent and listenable, and if more than their big single had gotten attention, they may have achieved a greater career. Personally, I’m a sucker for the power chords and melodic sequences that fill their songs. I don’t tire much of their sound.
The third and fourth albums both came after five-year breaks, which are death in the modern era. They haven’t released new music in six years now, again, except for a compilation of B-sides, rarities, and a new song or two – but nothing that makes you lean in and beg for more. The later albums were solid, with again many really good songs, but if you find by the end of this playlist it’s all starting to sound alike – pleasantly, but a little too much of the same overall vibe – then perhaps that’s this band’s downfall. Great sound but mined a little too deeply to produce the kind of ongoing engagement that’s needed in the modern, cacophonic, and overwhelming modern music era.
But that’s ok. There’s enough great music here to kick back and enjoy. And if you missed Marcy Playground on their first turn, check them out on their tour and re-discover them. You may also find, by the end of this playlist, you’re locked into the vibe and looking for the deeper tracks. I say go for it, they’re there and deserve your attention. Go play in Marcy’s playground.
- Poppies \ Marcy Playground (1997)
- Sex and Candy \ Marcy Playground (1997)
- Saint Joe on the School Bus \ Marcy Playground (1997)
- Gone Crazy \ Marcy Playground (1997)
- The Shadow of Seattle \ Marcy Playground (1997)
- It's Saturday \ Shapeshifter (1999)
- All the Lights Went Out \ Shapeshifter (1999)
- Love Bug \ Shapeshifter (1999)
- Blood in Alphabet Soup \ MP3 (2004)
- No One's Boy \ MP3 (2004)
- Brand New Day \ MP3 (2004)
- Gin and Money \ Leaving Wonderland… in a fit of rage (2009)
- Star Baby \ Leaving Wonderland… in a fit of rage (2009)
- Good Times \ Leaving Wonderland… in a fit of rage (2009)
- Down the Drain \ Leaving Wonderland… in a fit of rage (2009)