Music

Miracle Legion: Portrait of a Damaged Family

Miracle Legion returns after a 20-year hiatus and reissues their barely-noticed final album. It's an album that richly deserves to be heard.


Miracle Legion

Portrait of a Damaged Family

Label: Mezzotint
US Release Date: 2016-04-16
UK Release Date: 2016-04-16
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Influential college-rockers Miracle Legion, who released several strong albums in the ‘80s and ‘90s but fractures in 1996, are back -- and they’re bringing their final album, Portrait of a Damaged Family, with them for its first proper wide-scale release. Portrait of a Damaged Family will hit retailers on Record Store Day (April 16), and a digital release follows two days later. It’s not often that an album that was essentially “lost” gets a new lease on life, but that’s exactly what is happening here. The band clearly believes in the album, and it’s easy to understand why -- Portrait of a Damaged Family richly deserves to be heard.

Originally based in Connecticut, Miracle Legion was founded in the early ‘80s as a quintet. Led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Mulcahy and guitarist/songwriter Ray Neal, Miracle Legion’s melodic, jangly guitar rock impressed critics but never crossed over to mainstream popularity. The band released the EP The Backyard in 1984, which proved popular on college radio and garnered comparisons to R.E.M. Their first full-length album, Surprise Surprise Surprise, followed in 1987. By the time of their 1989 release Me and Mr. Ray (recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park Studio), the band was reduced to just Mulcahy and Neal, and they veered in a more acoustic-based direction. They followed with Drenched in 1992, another solid release that failed to find an audience.

Unfortunately, a constantly shifting lineup and legal entanglements with one of their record labels took their toll and the band released what would be their final album, Portrait of a Damaged Family, on Mulcahy’s own small label. It suffered from limited distribution, and the album sank without a trace. Miracle Legion officially called it quits shortly thereafter.

Fast forward 20 years later, and Miracle Legion has reunited. In addition to the reissue of Portrait of a Damaged Family, they are preparing to tour the US and UK this summer for the first time since the ‘90s. “I'm excited for Portrait to have a proper release,” says guitarist Ray Neal. “I don't think many people knew it came out the first time. I'm not sure I did! Unfortunately we never toured or did anything with it. We were all lost."

They may have been lost, but their music wasn't. Portrait of a Damaged Family, a pointedly wry title given the dysfunction surrounding the band for years, should have been recognized as a major comeback for the band had it been given the chance. For an album two-decades old, it sounds remarkably fresh, and for fans who may have missed it the first time around it may as well be brand new. It’s been carefully remastered from the original tapes by engineer Ian Kennedy.

The melodic guitar rock that made Miracle Legion college radio darlings in the ‘80s is back. The lyrics are evocative vignettes, wistful memories drifting through the haze of time. Opener “You’re My Blessing” finds Mulcahy suddenly awaking to the realization that words left unsaid sometimes really need to be heard: “I feel like I just woke up / and now the fog is gone / you’re all I see / and there isn’t a place in my soul except for you and me / we are coupled, kindred and free." It’s a beautiful and poignant performance, obviously deeply felt.

“Screamin’” is a dark rock waltz, with Mulcahy delivering a feverishly intense vocal performance. The jaunty “I Wish I Was Danny Kaye” adds a bit of levity to the proceedings. Much more substantial is “The Depot”, a previously unreleased track that’s reminiscent of something the Waterboys’ Mike Scott might perform, especially in the vocal phrasing.

The uber-catchy “Madison Park” is an upbeat rocker with a chiming guitars and a sunny disposition. Even better is “Accidentally on Purpose”, which boasts one of the more inventive vocal arrangements on the album. “KKM” (a/k/a/ Korean Kissing Machine) is an acoustic number with a trill of flute that adds to the song’s dreamlike, whimsical vibe.

“Good for Her”, one of the darkest and edgiest tracks, is told from the point of view of a man whose significant other has left. He has enough self-awareness to realize that she made the right move, although it leaves him alone. It’s a song riddled with bitterness and piercing regret. Portrait of a Damaged Family ends with the somber “Gone to Bed at 21”, a woeful tale about a soldier who enlists in the Army to please a woman he knows he will never see again. It's a powerful finalé.

Two songs from the original release are no longer here -- “La muerte di Garnier” and “6 Months”, and the track sequence is slightly altered. Given a chance to reimagine an album and present it with 20/20 hindsight is a rare opportunity and the changes make for a tighter listening experience. It’s interesting to reach back in time and regard a 20-year old album as a new release, but given its minimal promotion and impact first time around, it feels appropriate. Bands that are in the process of fracturing have often deliver stellar albums and Miracle Legion did that with Portrait of a Damaged Family. Hopefully its second life will be more fruitful than its first.

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