Marcy Playground – Shapeshifter

3 out of 5

Produced by: John Wozniak

Label: Capitol

While nowadays being hip to whatever’s “in” music-wise requires as much of a short attention span as any given meme – and just amounts to stocking your electronic device with whatever singles and moving on (not touching on the whole “collectors” grouping of which I’m probably a member), 90s alternative was probably the last scene that lent itself to album purchases, to going over your friend’s house and perusing – and judging – their collection.  For us minimum wage kids, that made it tough to determine which albums got your moneys; and then some years later – and maybe not too many, in retrospect – those all-consuming decisions and judgments were traded in for iPods and obsessively “cooler” music.

Sure, some of us stuck by a band or two, but your tastes got remolded, and when Pearl Jam or whatever came on or was shuffled to, it was a nostalgia hit or guilty pleasure.

Now you’re old and smellier, and maybe you revisit some of those nostalgia albums… and discover that the 90s were actually a pretty fortunate time for producing worthwhile albums that also contained hit singles.  Marcy Playground’s moody alt-rock debut definitely falls into that category, with its slightly humorous but bleak contemplations on childhood and growing up filtered through some talented arrangements by the band and the draped in this appealing gloom.  The followup, Shapeshifter, had some singles, but none as high profile as the debut.  Still, the band has kept kicking; as part of revisiting, let’s take a look at this followup disc; does it enter the realm of the problematic sophomore release?

…Hardly.  As soon as the gutsy riffing and ooh-ooh backup vocals open things up on Saturday, you recognize that MP has grown in confidence and expanded on their playbook without sacrificing lead singer John Wozniak’s recognizable average-Joe singalong style and the group’s penchant for toe-tapping tunes that just slightly veer off the poppy path.  They maintained, perhaps, the template of the first album, switching between grunge and folk and pop at particular intervals, but there’s certainly no attempt at a Sex and Candy retread.  But while the album is recognizably Marcy Playground, and these are all very much their songs, the music doesn’t quite feel birthed from the same place as their debut, feelers reaching out into Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins territory, or coming fairly close to the kind of shinier pop that could be likened to Jump, Little Children or Guster.  It’s as though the prior disc helped Wozniak to excise some demons from his childhood, opening him up to influences from the rest of the 90s music sphere and applying it in a way that lends itself more to smiles than grimaces, a la Secret Squirrel, or Pigeon Farm.  Some oddball emotionality still kicks around and leads to some excellent tracks, such as Wave Motion Gun, which has the earlier ooh-ooh vocals applied in a more juxtaposed fashion to the strange narrative versus the opener’s celebratory one, but Shapeshifter is nonetheless a much happier album.  And, unfortunately, happiness doesn’t always breed the most impactful of output.

This leaves us with a second release that’s not afraid to find its own vibe and style compared to what came before, but the nipping at other alt-rock styles and the overall more cheerful tone tend to make for some excellent sounding singles – truly catchy from the first listen – that don’t really have much staying power.