Music review entries
October 21, 2004
Once again, I found this band through the free CD in Uncut magazine (yes, that's where I get all my music from, I'm a bit of a slave to it) – the majestic ballad 'Polaroid' seemed the perfect successor to the excellent alt-country bands of the late '90's – Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown and Wilco.
Although there is not much that is groundbreaking musically about this album (many of the songs consist of that much-favoured alt-country turnaround of G, G/F#, Em, D C or variants), within its genre it is a gem. Devastatingly simple but effective songs like 'Barely Losing', 'Through' and 'Two Broken Hearts' are simply too charming to disregard.
Throughout this album, letters and postcards read out by singer Willy Vlautin and set to music break up the more conventional songs, charting the progress across America of a down-and-out loser named Walter who has run away from home because everyone there is 'pissed' at him – but everything he does on the lam seems to go wrong, which is at the same time a source of humour and sadness – a theme that is present throughout the album – for example; 'Dear Pete, I'm flat broke in Barstow, California, and let me tell you, it's one rough place. You remember that girl I told you about, well I caught her with a guy in the back of this bar called The Cats. The guy ended up kicking the shit out of me and even broke my right hand, and now I don't even have a room to stay in.'
The highlight of the album for me, however, is the title track, a wonderfully hopeful duet between Vlautin and guest vocalist Deborah Kelly about a relationship that is in trouble but clearly worth salvaging – 'If everyone screws up, and I know that we both do/Doesn't it make sense, me with you?'
The band exploits the simple (rather cliched) chord structures of the songs to their full potential, and manage to create something that sounds fresh and new, and Willy Vlautin's knackered-sounding, vulnerable vocals are the perfect foil for the bittersweet lyrics. If you're a fan of alt-country music, this album is probably this years best within the genre – if you are not, try it out anyway.
Ma-who now? I can almost guarantee you will not have heard of this thirty-something Philadelphia quintet with a sound like early Springsteen and a mission to save rock ‘n’ roll from the vapid, menopausal whining of Coldplay and Keane and the pale, heroin-addled NME bullshit of The Libertines and their clones.
I discovered Marah in 2001 upon the release of their second album, Kids In Philly. It was album of the month in Uncut magazine, and after having heard and liked the haunting Round Eye Blues on the free CD, I felt the album was worth buying. Kids In Philly immediately appealed to me with its raw guitar sound, ranging from the fast, Zeppelin-style blues hooks of The Catfisherman to the dirty, Keef-riffs of It's Only Money, Tyrone. Most of all, I was struck by the unusual, poetic lyrical style – any album with a song on it called My Heart Is The Bums On The Street is ok by me.
When they released their third album, Float Away With The Friday Night Gods, I was disappointed – the bassist and drummer had apparently been sacked, and it had been produced by the man behind Oasis, Owen Morris, and the result was an overblown, over-slick affair with only a couple of decent songs (Float Away, guest starring Bruce Springsteen on backing vocals, and Soul being well worth a listen). This felt like a bid for fame, a selling-out of everything that had been good about their previous album.
When 20,000 Streets Under The Sky came out in early 2004, then, I had become rather disillusioned with Marah – Kids In Philly was a fine album, for sure, but seemed to be a one-hit wonder. I bought it anyway, and it has barely been two feet away from my CD player since. A track-by-track analysis is perhaps the best way of portraying the genius of this album:
1. East – This sounds like it could have been one of the bonus tracks on Born To Run, and lyrically is as good as (maybe even better than) Springsteen ever wrote: 'This evening pigeons turn to bars of gold in the sun's last light/And across the river, Camden is a gilded kingdom on the verge of night'.
2. Freedom Park – I wasn't sure about this one the first time I heard it, but the contrast of the female backing vocalists singing 50's doo-wop with Serge Bielanko's buzz-saw guitar definitely makes for interesting listening. Another song, like East which is full of manic energy and aches to be turned up.
3. Feather Boa – The song opens out on the street, with a laid-back brass riff straight out of Little Italy, and then the Rolling Stones barge in and all hell breaks loose. Lyrically a very odd story, but expertly told – the song is about a transvestite prostitute on a street corner alone and afraid, who knows that '...some night, somehow somewhere/Somebody's gonna wish to end/The life of Feather Boa for no reason'.
4. Going Thru The Motions – Like Feather Boa, an up-tempo, ragged rocker that tries to hide the sadness and bitterness in the story of a dead-in-the-water relationship. I can see you laughing at the title. You child.
5. Sure Thing – Even though this song is so short (roughly 1 min 30 secs), it feels like a contender for the perfect three-minute pop song – a charming melody backing a bittersweet, hopeful lyric; 'Starting tonight, I'll be your sure thing, that's for sure'
6. Tame The Tiger – A smooth slice of 70's funk-rock which builds from the opening verse of just vocal/piano to a full-band climax.
7. Pigeon Heart – Singer David Bielanko dusts off his banjo here (not seen since Kids In Philly for this alt-country-flavoured anthem to freedom.
8. Soda – Perhaps the best song on the album, certainly lyrically – a mournful, melancholy Shakespearean tragedy about young lovers Hannah and Soda ('They call me Soda cos when I was a baby/My mother was so young Soda was all she gave me/It made me sickly, so that's why I shake/Like I'm scared or something but Hannah I ain't') and the problems they face in a world filled with hatred.
9. Pizzeria – At once a tribute to and a goodbye to the misspent youth of the author, when the local pizzeria where he worked growing up has suddenly turned into a Chinese restaurant. Strange, barbershop-quartet style verses give in to an infectious, rockier chorus. Okay, so the bass riff is nicked from a Prince song, but I like what they’ve done with it.
10. Body – Another incredibly complex lyrical exploration – the narrator is the ghost a dead gangster whose body is floating in the river, killed when a routine drug heist somehow goes wrong – a Scorsese movie in the making if I ever heard one.
11. 20,000 Streets Under The Sky – The album closes with an instrumental that manages to capture the mood of the street-smart songs that went before and is reminiscent of The Last Waltz by The Band.
Sure, Marah are slightly derivative – but who isn’t these days – and you have to admit, there is nobody around at the moment who combines the ragged beauty of Springsteen’s first two albums, the riffs and attitude of the Stones at their peak and the lyrics to rival even Dylan and Morrissey. Buy this album. It may just restore your faith in good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll.
Ok well that's it, I'm going to watch Marah (supported by Adam Masterson) on Friday 22nd October at the Borderline Club in Soho – no doubt will review the gig on my blog in the desperate hope of finding another fan.