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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?"

Wozniak's equally convincing when his memories get crowded by hallucinations. "Opium," for example, is an appropriately blurred and spacey look at the "blue like heaven" effects of opiates, and "A Cloak of Elvenkind" finds Wozniak doing his best Syd Barrett, replete with double-tracked vocals, stuttered meter and talk of "16 books on magic spells stacked below the cloak of elves."

Effete? Maybe. Effective? Definitely so.
"Songwriting for me is a process of elimination," Wozniak says. "It's finding what doesn't suck and spending as much time as possible creating something that, to my mind, doesn't suck. It's not that I'm trying to create something great, but something that's not bad."

Wozniak figures his songcraft is enhanced by living in New York, if only by osmosis. He says there's a "total community" of musicians in the area, especially Brooklyn, where lower rents attract artists who once would have migrated to Manhattan. He says the scene in Brooklyn is so tight that one or two people can play in six or seven different bands. Every once in a while, someone will wander off to L.A. in hopes of a better shot at a record contract. Wozniak knows the temptation. He tried it once.

"I hated it," he says of L.A. "It was just too big. I don't drive, I don't have a license, so I was trapped. New York is perfect for that kind of thing--you just hop on a subway, grab a cab or walk wherever you need to go. Also, New York is a little more downtown, you know what I mean? A little less showy. I've never been about showy. But it was nice weather, I guess."

The weather in Arizona is nice, too, and Marcy Playground's performance at Gibson's this week will be the young band's fourth appearance in the Valley. Previous shows included opening for the likes of Chalk Farm, Laszlo Bain and other acts that recently registered blips on the pop lifeline and then disappeared. Commercial music in general, and pop music in particular, is currently being dominated by such one-hit wonders, acts that grab at increasingly limited attention spans and hold on for as long as possible before giving way to the next new and disposable thing. Marcy Playground seems ripe for such categorization, and some critics forecast a brief resume for the band. Wozniak respectfully disagrees.

"You really have to gauge the depth of the album," he says. "If the album is deep, it's not gonna go away. But if it's a really shallow single and the rest of the album is all garbage, then you're looking at a one-hit wonder."

Wozniak offers Sublime as a good example of an act that hung around on radio despite being a ghost band, its leader having died of a drug overdose before the CD was released. "That whole record is amazing," Wozniak says. "It's not the kind of music I usually listen to, but it has such a unique quality. It doesn't surprise me they've milked it for everything it's worth."

But Sublime was a commercial and critical success. Marcy Playground still has to live down the occasional rock-crit naysayers--like, say, that aforementioned slash and burn in Rolling Stone. Wozniak, as usual, says he can't be bothered.

"Our music is for people who get it," he says. "I'm going to write the songs I'm going to write no matter what. I do this in a very selfish way."

He pauses: "And you know what? Those scathing reviews? Sometimes they're enlightening. Like, one of the things that guy said in Rolling Stone was something about being stuck in hippie lingo. And I'm like, 'Yeah, right on, man.' I'm absolutely stuck in hippie lingo. As a matter of fact, I think hippie lingo is groovy."

Marcy Playground is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, February 17, at Gibson's in Tempe, with Lincoln. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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