Like the shady hustlers of some Jim Thompson noir story, Marah has beaten a living out of the streets before it beat the living out of them. Rising out of the city like steam off a cheese steak on a cold afternoon, they've built themselves up into a great rock outfit without straying from the source of their roots.
20,000 Streets Under the Sky, Marah's fourth and latest CD, is the band's best yet, an urban song cycle (ambient street sounds serve as segues between songs) that combines the crashing bar chords and simmering guitar jangle at their rock and roll heart with organ, horns and a deep soul beat. Within that wonderful noise there reside lyrical anthems of Philadelphia's city-hardened arteries, avenues littered with trash both physical and spiritual -- the forlorn dreams and broken hearts of the wretched people who live there. Even so, Marah's message holds hope; there's a faith that cuts a jagged course through these horrific urban cityscapes, and it resonates more than the distant echo of the Boss's working-class dreamers muddling through the '70s on the nearby Jersey shore.
This aesthetic finds its most poignant witness in "Feather Boa," which traces the course of a junkie cross-dresser, bedeviled by his fate, who passes "stoically through the shit storms as his veins collapse and die" and laments that "this dick between my legs just makes me cry."
"We made a conscious decision to not have the words 'you' or 'I' or 'me' be too much a part of it," Marah front man Dave Bielanko tells the Press as the band's van rolls through Idaho on the way to Seattle. "It was very much about this group of characters that we invented to kind of tell the stories of fear or joy or whatever, and just what you could see in yourself, and your neighbor, through these characters -- be they a transvestite or a pigeon or a single mom."
20,000 Streets has a transatlantic heritage. A couple of years ago, Bielanko was living in New York pursuing a romantic "lead," while his guitar-playing brother Serge was up to the same thing in the UK. They kept in touch musically, though -- they played song snippets to each other on their cell phones and faxed lyrics, and Dave cut demos, which he sent to Serge for comment. On their return to Philly, those early songs, "East" and "Feather Boa," set the tone for the 20,000 Streets sessions; the album was to be a snapshot of that city's faded glory, its grime and the people who survive there.
"To empathetically look at that person who is pretty much at the bottom of the social chain for a lot of reasons, and to see a bit of yourself and sympathize in a way and put a bit of dignity into the song and the chord changes, is a very natural thing for people like us to try to do," Bielanko says. "Our music is recorded on South Broad maybe five or six blocks above Vet Stadium, where the city starts to span out. It's not the nicest place in the world. There's a lot of wicked, sick shit going on, but those people are struggling very much like we are, just trying to turn their lives around. And that's very rock and roll. More rock and roll than a lot of people that write and talk about rock and roll."
Such sentiments reinforce Marah's connection with the Boss, but despite an avowed love for Springsteen, and the fact that he has made cameo appearances on their records, Bielanko derides the comparisons simply because he's sick of their rote inevitability. No one seems to want to talk about anything else -- and if there's one thing Marah hates, it's being boxed in. That's what led them to jump the pond to Scotland when making their last album, Float Away with the Friday Night Gods, with Oasis and Ash producer Owen Morris.
"We had made two very critically applauded underground records that were getting really amazing reviews and shit, but we couldn't find them in record shops. So [Artemis Records] gave us a lot of money and Owen was one guy that we were big fans of," Bielanko explains, adding that the band wanted to find someone who would "take our music and rip it apart. Make something different out of it."
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Morris was definitely that guy. "When we interviewed Owen, he was like, 'I love your words, but your music is shit, it's bluesy,' " Bielanko recalls. "And we were like, 'This is our guy, he doesn't like what we do -- think of the possibilities there.' To us, that was the rock and roll attitude we needed to have. And again, we needed to distance ourselves from certain things. It's like you start to become ghettoized, and we just weren't having that at that point. We had to scare people a little bit, I guess."
And scare they did. Float Away divided the band's longtime fans, but virtually all of them will welcome the homecoming that is 20,000 Streets. Still, Bielanko stands by Float Away. He sees it as a necessary detour, a part of how a band should shape its legacy and grow into it, even a way to stay alive. "From day one I wanted to be in a band that had a future and was going somewhere," he explains. "There's a whole lot of hype and things like that, but where does it lead? How do you grow up doing it? How do you mature gracefully doing it? Because there really aren't that many people we have to look to. A lot of things just go away today. So you kind of have to make your own rules. I don't pretend to know them, but I think my favorite artists are people like Neil Young or Bob Dylan or Prince, and they make really crazy records from time to time, yet then they turn around and make masterpieces. It keeps them inspired -- I know it does -- and it keeps them working towards something."
Marah's current lineup -- which Bielanko calls "the best band I've ever played with" -- features the brothers Bielanko; Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, whom Dave Bielanko likens to a locomotive; bassist Kirk Henderson; and lap steel whiz Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner. The band's already legendary live show has stepped it up another notch. Meanwhile, Bielanko is already planning the next record. "It's exciting, and we're talking about recording music real soon," Bielanko says. "So we're writing on the road and piecing together a lot of stuff. It's a fairly inspiring moment which I can imagine a lot of bands don't have a couple records into their career, so we're lucky and fortunate that we all lined up right at this moment."
And even though the band has already been cited in the pages of The New York Times -- by no less an authority than High Fidelity author Nick Hornby -- as an exemplar of everything that is right with rock and roll circa 2004, Bielanko is still pursuing loftier dreams. "When [my brother and I] were ten years old, we were playing tennis rackets in our bedroom," Bielanko says. "I've always been in a band. I very much live a rock and roll sort of reality. I think that we've got an amazing record inside us and I think that, you know, maybe we'll write 'Stand By Me' or something like that. Maybe we'll do something very important. And that keeps you going."