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Ready for Recess

The most interesting time in a band's career is often when they're on the edge of mainstream success. Marcy Playground are at that point now, poised either to explode or to fizzle. Sales of the New York City-based alterna-pop trio's self-titled debut CD are starting to take off, and the venues they're headlining are getting larger. At this writing, their "Sex and Candy" single has been hovering at the top of the modern rock charts nearly a month, and their Houston date was recently moved from Instant Karma to Numbers to accommodate ticket demand.

And yet there's still that question: Will Marcy Playground -- a band as quirky and nostalgic as it is tuneful and inventive -- wind up being this year's Weezer? Or do they have the creative legs and talent to turn one hit into a sustained career? At the moment, the Playground shows every indication that the second scenario is the more likely one. They are holding fast under the pressure of newfound fame, funneling their nervous energy back into their music and only getting better.

When you get right down to it, few bands deserve a break more than Marcy Playground. They've worked hard to get this far, sloughing off a multitude of jibes -- and the insults started early. The group's name was inspired by Marcy Open School, an experimental academy that singer/guitarist John Wozniak attended in Minneapolis. A quiet kid whose shyness made him prime bait for bullies, Wozniak would cower in the classroom during recess rather than risk getting beaten up outside in the schoolyard. His closest friends at Marcy Open may well have been his class's pet guinea pigs. These days, Wozniak's best buddies are drummer Dan Reiser and bassist Dylan Keefe, who make up the remaining two-thirds of Marcy Playground.

The group's introduction to the music business was a bit chilling; just as EMI released Marcy Playground last February, the label closed its doors. But where lesser bands might have thrown up their hands and retreated, the Playground took their toys to Capitol, which quickly signed the band, heeding radio programmers' warnings not to let them get away. Capitol re-released the debut disc, then watched with interest as "Sex and Candy" worked its magic on listeners. The tune, endowed with a sugary-sweet hook, is a slow-burning, navel-gazer's delight. The low-key delivery and slow tempo suggest remarkable confidence for a band so young.

That same confidence marks the entire CD, which is filled with great songwriting and subtle stylistic twists. On the debut, Marcy Playground comes off like an intriguing hybrid of Toad the Wet Sprocket and the Violent Femmes, but with a pronounced respect for '70s arena rock. Theirs is a stripped-down music, adorned with minimal studio gloss and melodies that retain a childlike quality, even as the lyrics address harsh topics such as drug addiction, prostitution and the demise of the Seattle music scene. It's a sound and vision informed, Wozniak says, as much by Marlo Thomas and her '70s grade-school classic Free to Be ... You and Me as it is by the Beatles. Indeed, it ought to be fascinating to see how Marcy grows.

-- David Simutis

Marcy Playground perform Wednesday, February 11, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8. Lincoln opens. For info, call 629-3700.

Robert Frith -- Sometimes, hand-me-downs can pay off big. Case in point: In 1972, a teenage Gary Frith wasn't all that thrilled with the new guitar he'd received as a birthday present. But his younger brother Robert sure was, and he took to the thing like a kid possessed. Sadly, Gary has since passed away. Meanwhile, Robert has taken full advantage of his secondhand instrument, moving from his native Port Arthur to Houston, where he's been making a name for himself as an emotionally charged singer, songwriter and bandleader. This week, Frith -- who has bought a few more guitars over the last 26 years -- is celebrating the release of his second solo CD, Pon-Tune, an 11-track outing that some might liken to an unholy union between James Taylor and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It's the sort of hot-and-soft dynamic Frith's been nurturing for years now with his intimate unplugged shows. At 9:30 p.m. Thursday, February 5, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Cover is $5. 869-COOL. (Hobart Rowland)

Southern Culture on the Skids -- If rock music's main goal is to mirror humankind's deepest desires and dilemmas, then Southern Culture on the Skids has missed the point. This North Carolina trio is a well-executed musical joke, with multiple punch lines that accompany the shimmying guitar antics of bandleader Rick Miller. Southern Culture pens songs about shotguns, tractors, beef-jerky dinners, dates at the dirt track and possum carving. To get a loose idea of the band's sound, think Link Wray fronting the B-52s; it's hillbilly surf, served up entirely tongue-in-cheek. On the latest Southern Culture release, Plastic Seat Sweat, the band continues its championing of all things redneck, packaged with all the appeal of canned spaghetti. Sometimes, though, that's what looks best in the cupboard. At 9 p.m. Sunday, February 8, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $10. The Tone Benders open. 869-COOL. (Brendan Doherty

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