The magic of Mark J. Mulcahy

The man behind the soundtrack to your childhood brings his newest — and best — solo work to Noise Pop

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MARK MULCAHY PHOTO BY R. MURRAY

esilvers@sfbg.com

LEFT OF THE DIAL To an '80s baby, at this point, calling Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete & Pete a cult favorite is a little like thinking your childhood love of The Labyrinth or The Neverending Story is somehow quirky or unique — it goes without saying that they're excellent, but we're gonna need a lot of Kool-Aid: These are some pretty big cults we're dealing with.

Which doesn't mean, of course, that there wasn't an air of "giant secret club meeting" at the Sketchfest Pete & Pete reunion that took place at the packed Marines Memorial Theater in 2013. That live show marked, I will admit, the first time I realized how crucial a role music had played in constructing the show's singularly surreal, hilarious, kid-centered universe. I'd had the show's jangly, irreverent theme song, "Hey Sandy," on my iPod for years, and had read about how Polaris — the show's own house band — was a sort of one-off project for members of the early-R.E.M.-era college-rock band Miracle Legion, which dissolved under a heated label dispute; the show's creators were simply fans of that band and asked lead singer Mark Mulcahy to chime in. I knew both acts were driven by bright, breezy guitar riffs and Mulcahy's distinctive, sometimes erratic, Lou Reed-esque vocals.

But it wasn't until hearing Mulcahy sing a few songs from Polaris' oeuvre live that — enamored, nostalgic, weirdly emotional — I went home and promptly dove headfirst into his solo work, of which there are four complete albums. If you want to work backward, Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You, released in July of last year after a nearly eight-year hiatus, is a beautiful starting point. It's a moody, introspective, but clear-thinking and meticulously arranged record, stamped all over with the Mulcahy trademark: Lyrics that veer toward magical realism, the intonation of a less-goofy Jonathan Richman, gently dark witticisms that don't quite make sense but you understand their feeling in your bones, bleak stories that don't really seem autobiographical, but then — who can be sure?

Mulcahy can, but he doesn't owe us an explanation. The gentlest, happiest track on the record, "The Rabbit," — on which the songwriter sweetly confesses "I'm a sucker for magic/where's the rabbit?" — is punctuated with sleigh bells; it's the sound of an artist almost surprising himself with how much hope and curiosity he still has for the world. That's followed by "Where's the Indifference Now?," a bitingly cynical guitar opus about the media's vulture-like coverage of Heath Ledger's death. ("You could apply it to Philip Seymour Hoffman now, I guess," says Mulcahy.) If he often deals in surrealism, his gift is in the  human honesty of that contrast, the recognizable sense of home base in the space between those moods.

"I was home most of the day, it's a snow day," is the first thing he says, however, when, after a bit of phone tag, I finally reach him at the Massachusetts home he shares with his two young twin daughters. "I'm looking out the window right now at snow, just as far as you can see...so it's a bit strange to be thinking about playing in San Francisco [for Noise Pop]."

One reason for the extended hiatus: In 2008, Mulcahy's wife passed away quite suddenly, and he's been raising the kids on his own ever since. A tribute album to help raise money for the family, Ciao My Shining Star (named for a line in the obituary Mulcahy wrote her), was arranged almost entirely without his knowledge and released in 2009, with artists who happen to be Mulcahy fans — folks like Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, Dinosaur Jr., Frank Black, The National, Elvis Perkins, and Juliana Hatfield — performing Mulcahy's songs.

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