1. An Auspicious Beginning.
Sometime in late 1993 two brothers, Serge and Dave Bielanko, got together with a couple of other guys from Philadelphia and formed a rock band. It was the grunge era, and they had the look nailed - thin faces, long, stringy hair, wardrobes that included a lot of denim. They looked more like people you’d find under a bridge than in a recording studio, but from their sound it was clear they listened to more Springsteen than Cobain. They started playing shows shows in the Philly area, and called themselves Marah - presumably on the grounds that no one else already had. In 1998, they finally got around to cutting a record.
That record was Let’s Cut The Crap and Hook Up Tonight, and it proved not only that Marah had serious rock and roll chops but also that they worked with a wide variety of styles: the album bounced from banjo-tinged rockabilly to Wilsonesque harmonies and back again, with a dash of stomping gospel and steel-guitar country thrown in for good measure. What the album was not was a hit. It was released on a small local label (Black Dog Records, now defunct) and raised Marah from obscure to slightly-less-obscure. (Reviews of the album were few and far between, but it did receive a rare 9/10 from Pitchfork, who said the album was “…at once intelligent, thoughtful, raucous and fun. It can only be classified as great rock n’ roll.” Sadly, the website had not yet become the cultural force it would be in later years, and never again would they speak so favorably of the band.)
After a bit of touring Marah decided that maybe the country thing wasn’t for them, after all, and they’d rather just make really loud music. Eventually they went back into the studio and came out a few months later, in the early months of 2000, with their sophomore record Kids In Philly.
Kids In Philly was a very different album than the band’s first. In some ways, it was a much more focused rock and roll album; gone, for the most part, were the banjos and the steel guitar. Stripped of their country tinge, Marah’s Springsteen influences were even more apparent - both musically and lyrically. The album included songs titled ‘My Heart is the Bums on the Street’ and 'From the Skyline of a Great Big Town’; the boys knew how to wear their blue-collars on their sleeves, so to speak.
Most importantly, though, Kids raised Marah’s profile in a way that Let’s Cut the Crap hadn’t. It was released on a label that, while not huge, was at least respectable (the New York-based Artemis Records). And it had the unique distinction of being very loved by a certain famous people. They had fans in the music world (Steve Earle and the Boss himself) and, strangely, in the literary one (Nick Hornby, the British author of About A Boy and High Fidelity, joined Stephen King in hyping the band in a variety of public outlets).
What Kids In Philly had in common with Let’s Cut The Crap and Hook Up Tonight was that it didn’t sell. But Marah wasn’t too worried; why would they be? Earle wanted all of their future records to be for his E-Squared label. One of the most respected novelists in England wrote that “I can hear everything I ever loved about rock music in their recordings and in their live shows.” And when Springsteen played at Giants Stadium it was Marah he wanted onstage with him. After the release of Kids in Philly there was a sense, both in the band and in their high-profile fans, that Marah was one record away from rock and roll stardom.
But then, you know what they say about pride.
2. The Thorny Question of Authenticity.
The funny thing about 'authenticity’ is that some bands don’t have to worry about it all. No one ever accused Daft Punk or The Flaming Lips of being inauthentic; for whatever reason, it was simply not as important for these types of bands to have the same sort of 'real’ air about them.
There is, to be sure, an almost absurd amount of subjectivity at play here. The author Damon Knight once said that 'science fiction is what we point to when we say it’, and we might as well say the same thing about music that is 'authentic’. We simply recognize in certain artists and desire it in others. But there are a few things we can safely say on the subject.
It is much more important to be authentic when you are mining a rich musical vein. That is, it isn’t as important for Daft Punk to be seen as being authentic as it is for The Black Keys. The former is working in a genre that is relatively new and has no clear masters to pay homage to; the latter is inextricably linked to blues legends - McDowell, Kimbrough, Hurt - to whom The Black Keys must pay a certain due. There is a certain trade-off here: it’s okay to be unoriginal if you can be extremely authentic, and it’s okay to forget about being authentic if you can be incredibly original.
But the single defining characteristic of authentic music is that the performers have to be (or at least have to seem) completely genuine. There can be no sly winks here, no ironic glances or sarcastic smiles; we demand nothing less than absolute sincerity. The music-going public is, I think, always wary of being scammed; we’re terrified that one day some blues-rock outfit we’ve been collectively fawning over is going to give an interview in Spin where they say something like, “Why do I take so many cues from Sticky Fingers? Because it sold a lot of fucking records, and Jagger has a house with six hot-tubs in it.” If you look at artists who have always been seen as indubitably authentic - from Springsteen to Johnny Cash to The Band to The Clash - there is always a sense, earned or not, that they are making exactly the music they want to make, the public and the labels be damned.
Marah’s first two records only really worked because they were seen as being very authentic. They seemed to genuinely love the music they were appropriating. They had elements of originality, but certainly not so many that it wasn’t easy to name their influences. They came from one of the most economically disadvantaged cities in America, and they sang songs about back alleys and subways, about fishing off of bridges and drive-by shootings.
And in 2003, they forgot about all of that and released an album called Float Away With the Friday Night Gods that was, simply put, a terrible record.
3. The Dangers of Leaving Your Comfort Zone.
It’s a given in rock music that some artists can experiment and others can’t. For whatever reason, we don’t blink when Nick Cave goes from gritty post-punk to bluesy rock in the space of two records, or when Tom Waits puts out an album that sounds like nothing he’s ever done before. But there’s a reason that every R.E.M. record of the past twenty years sounds basically the same - because they know that if they ever tried something radical everyone would laugh at them. We like R.E.M. because they’re dependable, and Cave because he isn’t.
Float Away With The Friday Night Gods was an American roots-rock band’s attempt to do Oasis-style Britpop, and it was, by any measure, a failure. Exactly why it was a failure, though, is a bit more complicated.
On the face of it, the record had fine credentials. It was recorded in Britain, where Marah had toured so often that they might as well have bought houses. The producer was Owen Morris, who was responsible for albums like Oasis’s What’s the Story, Morning Glory? and The Verve’s A Northern Soul. And the songs were, at their core, not bad songs. (I know this because the band would later release Float Away - Deconstructed, and the demo tapes were better than the finished product.)
People hated it. Float Away earned Marah no new fans and drove away a good number of the ones who already existed. But what was so frustrating for the band was that the complaints people had about the album were the exact same things that had made other bands - like Oasis, and Blur, and Pulp - so successful.
The album was overproduced, people said. Well, of course; that’s one of the defining characteristics of Britpop. Morris was, after all, the man who had invented the 'brick wall’ theory of sound mixing, whereby every instrument and microphone in the studio was simply turned up as loud as it could go, and as many tracks as possible were laid over each other at full volume. Why did it work for Blur and not for Marah?
The lyrics were bad, they went on. That one must have stung. Marah’s lyrics had, after all, always been one of their strengths, and they weren’t doing anything different here than they had before. But what gives lyrics their impact is as much the delivery as the content. On their previous albums - especially Kids In Philly - lines that, on paper, could seem silly (“Seen two lovers in a park/felt the blood rush to my fists/they were sittin’ on a bench/entangled in a kiss”) were given a gritty, urgent flavor by the fact that they were delivered in a strangled howl, over a driving drumbeat and a fuzzy electric guitar. But similar lines delivered over syrupy-sweet pop hooks just made people giggle.
But in the end what killed Float Away With The Friday Night Gods was that it wasn’t authentic. The fans, hearing Marah playing music so obviously not in their style, didn’t buy that they were making something they truly cared about. First-time listeners, even without having heard Let’s Cut the Crap or Kids In Philly, could tell somehow that the band were working outside their comfort zone. The critics tore the record to shreds. And for a couple of years, Marah retreated to lick their wounds.
What was needed was a kick-to-the-head record, something that reminded the band’s original fans why they loved them in the first place, and got the critical world back on their side. Unfortunately, the band’s next record, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky, wasn’t quite it, either. They didn’t repeat the mistakes of their third record - this was a return to doo-wop and soul influenced rock and roll, no doubt about it - but the record was a little too produced, a little too quiet, a little too careful.
It was the sound of a band thinking hard about something that used to come easy.
In 2005, Marah went back into the studio. The band was twelve years old, with three lineups and four albums under their belt. They hadn’t put out a critically acclaimed record in five years. So when they went back into the studio, they decided to shake things up a bit. They started recording tracks live, with minimal dubbing, and fast - a rehearsal or two, and then a take. It was fun. They felt loose. After nine days in the studio the record was done.
The record that emerged from those sessions was called If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry, and it was an unabashed return to form. Musically, it was similar to Kids In Philly, so much so that if you were to mix the two together most people would have a tough time determining which tracks came from which album. This was a very good thing.
“The band is full of confidence and swagger,” wrote PopMatters. “This is the sound of a band captured before they, or anyone else, could knob twiddle the exuberance out of their songs.” And that was just one of the accolades that came rolling in: the album was well-reviewed in almost every publication that heard it. (The exception there was, ironically, Pitchfork.)
And the band finally turned their momentum around. They went on a multi-country tour and played to sold-out crowds at venues like New York’s Irving Plaza. People actually bought the record. Later that year, Marah put out (weirdly) a Christmas album. They recorded a song with the writer Sarah Vowell that was featured on This American Life. Suddenly, people cared about Marah. Not as many people as they would have liked, probably, but at this point they pretty much had to take what they could get.
But what was it about If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry that everyone liked? Not that it was new or innovative. Not that it was a step forward for the band. Not even that it was original. What they liked about it was its authenticity, that it sounded like five guys in a room making music they liked to make. It was genuine. For some bands, this isn’t important. For Marah, it’s everything.
In late 2008, Marah put out Angels of Destruction, their sixth proper album. It was - okay. A good song here and a mediocre one there. And it was - like Let’s Cut the Crap, like Kids in Philly, like If You Didn’t Laugh - critically lauded but little-bought. Shortly after AoD’s release, the band imploded - the rhythm section, unable to understand how new keyboardist Christine Smith fit into the band’s scheme, quit as one. The band canceled their North American tour. Some people were disappointed - but not all that many.
Did Marah miss their window? By releasing two critical and financial duds, by letting years go by between their best records, they may indeed have lost the chance at rock and roll stardom that they dreamed for when they joined The Boss onstage at Giants Stadium. And the things that define their sound - exuberance, enthusiasm, energy - get harder to summon up as you get older, and the band members are pushing forty.
I only bring any of this up because Marah’s seventh album - called Life Is A Problem - is slated for release on June 1st. And off and on over the last few years, as I’ve checked in with the band, downloaded their EPs and browsed the message boards, I’ve wondered about what this album will be like. The rational part of me believes that it will disappoint: two great albums of seven is not the greatest track record. But there’s another part of me - the part that thrilled when I listened to Kids in Philly - that’s hoping for something more. For a true Springstonian comeback, full of sweat and harmonicas and pumping fists. For a record that’s redemptive, that’s triumphant, like the best American rock and roll always was.
Maybe it’s unfair to saddle a single record with all those expectations.
I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks.
“Waiting for the Devil”, an outtake from Life Is A Problem, released through Marah’s website last month.
(Photo credit: Piggbox, Flickr.)