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Marcy Playground shrugs its way to the head of the class

John Wozniak's seen the review. It's hard to miss. There, big as life, in a recent edition of Rolling Stone, Wozniak's band, Marcy Playground, received all of one and a half stars in a record review by a critic who likened the band's CD to everything bad in alternative rock.

Wozniak wants to make it clear that the review doesn't bother him. He wants to make that very clear.

"No kidding, it doesn't bother me," he says by phone from a tour stop in North Carolina. "I don't read their magazine anyway. So it doesn't bother me."

Wozniak adds that the venerable music mag just called a few days ago looking for an interview. This, he says, doesn't bother him either.

"We've had the No. 1 modern-rock track for seven straight weeks and they're just now calling. If it was a magazine I cared about, or I think anybody in the country cared about, it would bother me. But who takes Rolling Stone seriously? I mean, they just had the Spice Girls on the cover."

Perhaps Wozniak protests a bit much. He gladly accepts the many friendlier critiques assessed Marcy Playground's debut album, and the disc indeed is a winner, a collection of casual shrugs made tuneful by way of considerable pop smarts. The CD is fueled by its first single, "Sex and Candy," a constant presence on alternative playlists with no signs of backing off. The song puts music to a caffeinated slacker's observational afternoon, with Wozniak's hush-puppy vocals leading bassist Dylan Keefe and drummer Dan Reiser on a sly-sounding, slow-motioned ride. It's not the kind of noise that makes for mosh pits or stadium tours, but it's catchy and it works.

And Wozniak still can't believe it's on the radio.
"Yeah, it's kind of shocking," he says. "Because it doesn't really fit into the rest of the modern-rock format. I remember hearing it for the first time on the radio, it was between Smashing Pumpkins and Alice in Chains, and I almost didn't recognize it, it was so unusual to me."

As for the song's success, Wozniak figures it's a question of having the wrong sound at the right time.

"I've noticed a lot of bands that are coming out now sound like either Hootie or Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains," he says. "And people are smarter than that. I don't know if those bands actually sound like that or it's all contrived, but I don't think fans of contemporary rock give a shit. It's like, they've had Pearl Jam, they can still have Pearl Jam, so why would they want somebody who sounds like Pearl Jam? I think people are responding to us because we don't sound like somebody else."

Wozniak, who grew up in Minnesota, started Marcy Playground in New York a few years ago. The band came together after the singer-songwriter left the fertile if volatile music scene in Olympia, Washington, for New York's more commercially viable buzz.

"I wanted to find other musicians I could play with who weren't necessarily doing the punk-rock thing," Wozniak says of his exit from the Northwest. "You know, people who could play more than three chords." In Olympia, he played out as a solo act while going to school at The Evergreen State College. He recorded and released a solo album and called it Zog Bogbean, after a character from some short stories he wrote as a teenager. Only 300 copies of the disc were distributed, but one of them got to the right person at EMI Records, who kept in touch. Wozniak relocated to Brooklyn, compiled a number of songs, recruited Keefe and Reiser, and made another call to the label. The band was born.

Wozniak decided on the name Marcy Playground in honor of the Marcy Open School, an "experimental hippie school" he attended as a kid in Minneapolis. Wozniak says the days he spent at Marcy left a lasting impression. Like the time he was too afraid to go out to recess because some neighborhood toughs had threatened to corner him in the schoolyard and beat him up. He says he still vividly remembers staying in the classroom that day, looking out the window and playing a record of "Free to Be You and Me." He recalls spending the rest of that day making up stories about the people he watched from the window, and in doing so creating a foundation for the expressive artist he's since become.

"When I first wrote songs about that time and that area, it made for several cathartic experiences," he says. "They were beautiful experiences, the writing, and I had tears in my eyes when I wrote this one song that I called 'From the Marcy Playground.' So I ended up using that name for the band."

"From the Marcy Playground" is not on the CD, but the disc does include a number of songs that mix wide-eyed wonderment with a newly found realization that life can suck. "Saint Joe on the Bus," for example, is a loping tune about being picked on, and "Sherry Fraser," a hazy, half-speed love song, combines the longing inherent in nostalgia with the promise that accompanies puppy love: "I saw stars falling all around her head," Wozniak sings. "Red, gold and blue/Sherry Fraser, where are you?"

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