Picks and Pans Review: Me and Mr. Ray

updated 05/01/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/01/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Miracle Legion

Ray Neal and Mark Mulcahy got their start as New Haven rock promoters who booked some of the country's best underground bands. Learning from what they heard, Mulcahy began writing songs while Neal worked on his guitar playing. They hired a drummer, found a Yale research psychologist to play bass, and after a few years of local gigs, in 1987 they got a record deal. The next year they toured with Iceland's ultrahip rockers the Sugar-cubes.

From all these experiences Miracle Legion has developed a substantial amount of know-how that's displayed on this remarkably good second album. Though the band's tacky name might fit a bunch of heavy-metal headbangers, these folk-rockers play quiet songs in the R.E.M. mode, drawing in listeners with unexpected, often simple effects. Suddenly all of the instruments will drop away as Mulcahy sings an intimate solo; then he'll be joined by a single flute or guitar and later pull in the rest of the band.

To call the lyrics self-consciously intellectual understates it. While the songs often hit on such familiar topics as rejection in love, the writing gets so obtuse that Mulcahy included an insert with explanatory footnotes. All the same, a listener's hard work pays off when a song hits the mark. "Pull the Wagon," the story of a farmer who kills an old mule, sets up a disturbing metaphor for forced obsolescence. At the song's climax a cowbell rings meekly as drums deliver a fierce crash, like a gun being fired. In "Even Better" Mulcahy sidesteps the cliché of comparing women to roses and instead depicts them as violets, forsythia and marigolds. His insights, though hardly works of genius, are refreshing. (Rough Trade)

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