Grit and Redemption

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There’s a type of rock ’n’ roll found only in the ruptured forests of the urban night, gnarled brick caverns tucked deep in the concrete jungles of poured-steel flowers, barbed-wire sentinels and corrugated towers. Swirling amidst the throngs of dime-store bards and bumper-car drunks, skinny-tie yuppies and cellophane punks, guitar slingers with tattered suits blow smoke rings and pull their hats low over eyes glowing with the intensity of Blake’s tigers, coiled to unleash shards of sonic electricity on the hearts of star-crossed listeners. A certain type of moonlit soul emerges in these shadowy temples, where bashed-up Telecasters and amp casings soak up the stench of stale beer and denim-clad expectation.

It’s in places like these where rock ’n’ roll still burns desperate and bright, a fireball of pent-up love and hope in decibel form, ready to wake the soul of the yearning and, as yet, unjaded. It’s rare, man. The stories we tell ourselves about these musicians—our visions of the soaring-eagle morality and unflinching loyalty of a guy like Bruce, the bruised-guitar wrists and aching, drunken heart of a Keith Richards reverie, the cagey and caustic iconoclasm of a war-warbling Dylan—that stuff is hard to come by in the real world, where passion is difficult to maintain, much less admit to with confidence. Like so much in life, the reality of music is that the mundane is typical, with true moments of myth and magic occurring fleetingly and often with little fanfare. So sometimes you have to dig—and dig deep—in these, the stinking basement clubs and unheralded garages, if you want your dose of magic. And this is where you find bands like Marah.

For those of us held most deeply by rock ’n’ roll’s thrall—particularly in its most romantic, melodramatic and thrilling incarnations—it’s almost too damn easy to fall in love with a band like Marah. Built around Serge and Dave Bielanko, two brothers growing up on the rough and tumble streets of Philadelphia, the band itself is a story that’s nearly irresistible. A self-produced jam session in 1998 turns into Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later Tonight, a jagged, glistening barnburner of a debut that gets picked up by Cary Hudson’s Black Dog label and pulls them into the music world, ultimately paving the way for the 2000 masterwork Kids in Philly. With its kinetic tug, poetic lyrics and revivalist reverence for all things good, old and musical, KIP’s whirlwind tour of hometown, dirty-brick, pizza ’n’ beer Philly prompts a frenzy of critical adulation and breathless comparisons to The Replacements, the Stones, Steve Earle and Springsteen, and garners the band such notable fans as Nick Hornby and hizzown Bossness, Springsteen himself.

Feeling aesthetically limited by critics (and by the self-conscious community the band increasingly found itself identified with) and seeking brighter lights and bigger venues, Marah splits Philly. They roam through the U.K., parlaying their new relative celebrity into Float Away with the Friday Night Gods, produced by Oasis protégé Owen Morris and even featuring a Springsteen cameo (albeit oddly buried in the mix). With its slicker production and unabashed hooks, Float Away’s big boom spurs a vicious backlash from dyed-in-the-wool scenesters and traditionalist fans. As the band’s lineup fluctuates and momentum dissipates, the wheels seem to come off, and suddenly they are overlooked garage heroes again, supposed has-beens the very moment they were poised to take the music world by storm. Proverbial taillights fade, roll credits Dear John is all she wrote? Naw, man, there’s one left to win for the Gipper, the Big Bopper, or whoever’s currently the patron saint of great art that deserves better than a premature death.

So now the brothers Bielanko are basically back at square one with a new label (Yep Roc), a sympathetic new rhythm section (multi-instrumentalist Kirk Henderson, former Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster) and lap-steel player (virtuoso Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner), and the still-smoldering drive to set the globe ablaze in the flames of hungry-heart rock ’n’ roll as they release their new, self-produced album 20,000 Streets Under the Sky.

For those who’ve seen Marah over the years, any given show can offer a spectrum of experiences—from cataclysmic, sloppy jams in which instruments wail and a boogying Bielanko climbs speakers, stools and tables, to more sedate and introspective acoustic articulations so carefully crafted they’re as much short films or stories as songs. Loosey-goosey, sans irony and generally unscripted, no two shows are much alike save for the songs, the energy, and the almost goofy smiles on the band members’ faces while they sing.

Tonight’s show is particularly special, though; in a tightly packed Cambridge, Mass., club, the pregnant possibility is visible in Dave Bielanko’s eyes. Playing to a bigger audience than the band’s yet found in Boston, and previewing several new songs from the as-yet unreleased Streets, the Bielankos’ father, a drummer from whom they were separated for much of their childhood, joins his progeny onstage for the second encore, a walloping array of rock reunion and rediscovery. It’s nights like these that you remember that a rock show—when it’s done right, at least—is something of a dizzy odyssey, an airplane that takes off at extremely high speed into the prevailing winds and spins and funnels its way into death or glory and damned if there are seatbelts worth clinging to when there’s that fleeting chance the night’s last chord can promise revelation, or at least the nice, satisfying anarchy of a really loving sonic trainwreck.

So what of the songs? Like Marah’s previous albums, Streets often conveys pathos-laden images of urban lives clinging to hope in the dingier undersides of American cities, little Scorsese vignettes of working mothers, suffering hookers and restless youth. Over coffee the rainy next day, Serge Bielanko acknowledges that Marah’s work is often as inspired by literature and cinema as it is by other music. Fair enough for guys who turn amazing phrases like “my heart is a Kerouac midnight, teeming with beats that reverberate fear,” or “scratch card rub off silver is the jewel beneath his nails” as a matter of course. Particularly vivid is the new song, “Feather Boa,” an unflinching tale of a transvestite streetwalker who dreads a brutal end and yet somehow keeps going. For a song of such stark subject matter, the band identifies with it surprisingly closely, seeing it as a kind of parallel to the emotional pit of their own recent career doldrums. Appropriate then for this moment of darkness to be redeemed by “East,” a panoramic musing on the glorious mysteries awaiting a thoughtful narrator on the streets of his hometown. Together, the two songs sketch out the rough concept of Streets’ grit and redemption. “Your direction comes after two or three songs,” says Serge. “You start to see where you’re going without even really realizing it and that vehicle starts to drive itself.”

Aside from a knack for writing, Marah’s most potent weapon is its deep awareness of musical history, and the subtle and nonchalant reverence with which it references the richest veins of rock’s gilded catalog. In conversation, Dave and Serge allude to musicians ranging from Lou Reed and Smokey Robinson to Blue Mountain and even Coldplay. Often their songs sound like the culmination of a thoughtful survey of musical milestones. An early cinematic gem, “Formula Cola, Dollar Draft,” finds Serge chanting the lyrics to Roy Acuff’s classic “The Great Speckled Bird” underneath the song’s fade-out, while KIP’s Vietnam-drama “Roundeye Blues” is built on the template of Spectors’ (Ronnie and Phil, of course) “Be My Baby.” For its part, Streets drinks in the hallowed past of Philly soul and hums it out in a handful of sha-la-la’s and playground rhymes.

Some may proclaim Streets a “return to form,” but Marah remains reluctant to disavow Float Away. Both Dave and Serge concede that the decision to make the record the way they did will become more clear to them with increased time and critical distance. But they note that Float Away found them simply taking advantage of the opportunity to work with a producer whose work they respected and to maybe reach a larger audience. Furthermore, in the face of increased critical scrutiny and implicit pressure to remake KIP, something made them pull the other way.

“Being that age, and being reactionary people as a rule, it was like, turn it around and go the other way. Do whatever Marah wouldn’t do. That’s part of growing up, that’s part of being an artist. It’s very real,” says Dave. “I mean, we worked really hard on those songs to try to actually say where we were at, at the time, and it really does. It’s the kind of thing where I can sit down with a guitar and go song by song through that record and it means something else to us.”

The band did expect—to an extent—the brutal response of some of its most hardcore fans. Dave shakes his head, wondering how adult fans could actually have their feelings hurt by a record that sounds different from what they might have expected. “One thing I can honestly say is that we did exactly what we wanted to do. We did stay true to ourselves. It’s just that you didn’t like it,” chuckles Serge. Marah, like Dylan, was for a brief moment called Judas. In the end, artistic freedom lies, perhaps, in shaking off the tyranny of having to give a damn when the demands of others interfere with your creative vision.

“There’s really no rules right now, especially for us,” says Dave, “we pretty much have to dream them up as we go at this point.” Like the rest of the band’s albums, what ties Streets together—and connects it to the best of the rock tradition—is the same thing that animates everything Marah does. “Hope is very big with us,” says Dave. Yup. That’s right. Hope, love, ambition, glory—the beautiful shimmering gifts some of us still search for as they were rock ’n’ roll’s Holy Grail itself. Like Bruce or Keef before them, Marah unflinchingly chases down the hallowed rock dream with a joyful yawp that resounds in every lyric. In this age of increasingly ubiquitous irony, self-parody and pose-copping, Marah still believes the promise of rock ’n’ roll to shower down flecks of bliss and communicative escape on the rest of our lives. When they fulfill that pledge, the boys from Philly deliver majesty, grit and redemption.