AmericanA to Z: Marah

It’s an age-old story; idealistic young things are awe-struck by the rhetorical and transformative power of rock n roll, which fills their head full of dreams and raises their eyes to the skies. They form a band and, with a burning belief in their own ability to communicate and connect through music, set out on their mission to conquer the world.

The wild-eyed, naive energy of their convictions sees them channelling everything they (and we) love about the history and beauty of rock n roll into a couple of great records and builds them a rep’ as a coruscating live band, slaying small but perfectly formed audiences wherever they play. They accumulate critical plaudits and celebrity fans like they are going out of fashion

At some point on this journey though they start to become road worn and weary as they realise that naïve energy and belief in rock n roll is actually never enough to conquer the world. The reality of the ‘business’ dawns and the struggles of dealing with it begin to take their toll.

Slightly older and less idealistic, our heroes struggle to find a reliable and capable supporting cast, band members become disillusioned and leave, bad advice is taken, discord begins to take the place of dreams and it gradually becomes clear that they may not create the impact that they set out to make.

Our champions struggle on; they can’t ‘give up’ what else can they do? But the law of diminishing returns seems to have set in – in the music produced and the resulting sales of records and tickets. Eventually the whole experience becomes a chore that has sucked the life out their art and soul and the band fades from view and out of our consciousness.

In our version of this story, Marah are the heroes. Or to be more accurate perhaps, the Beilenko brothers Serge and Dave are the ‘idealistic young things’ in early 90’s Philly and the band is fashioned with these two at the core and a revolving cast of members and collaborators. As Dave B has it Marah was conceived from a deception, it was the little guy’s attempt to escape the grind of urban life “… a cop-out of the 9-to-5. It was a grift, to get into a fucking band so I don’t have to deal with the rest of it”.

As often happens with these stories the truth, as constructed by the band at least, is a touch more nuanced than the clichéd travelogue outlined above. Here it is anchored by one defining moment, an event – or critical incident if you will – that was set to make or break the careers, fortunes and hearts of the players.

The event was Marah’s appearance on ‘kingmaker’ Conan O’Brien’s ‘Late Night With’ show to promote the release of their 6th album the “sonic tour-de-force” that was ‘Angels of Destruction’. The latest and most compelling version of Marah were all set to go straight from the show out on their biggest tour to date with their first real bout of PR behind them and a ‘return to form’ album to push.

This was the ‘big one’. Instead, less than a week after the national TV appearance this version of the band were no more. Internal divisions and ineffective ‘management’ had combined to see them off. Years of ‘dues-paying’ graft forgotten at the moment of the money shot. As Dave himself observed “no one was happy with us”. Really? We can’t imagine why!

They’ve reconvened in one form or another and hobbled on since then, in fact they still exist in a strange kind of way but not in the glorious all-conquering way they could, or in fact should, have.

Why the fuss then and why do the few of us who were totally sold at the time miss them so much? Let’s get the inevitable comparisons out of the way first. It is almost impossible to read anything on Marah without mention of at least one of the unholy triumvirate of supposed influences: Springsteen, Westerberg/the ‘mats or Steve Earle. It’s not a bad place to start but there is so much more to tell. Limiting them to this palette might neatly picture the traditional, rootsy rock n roll elements of their sound but ignores much of what made them great.

Whilst using the somewhat jaded building blocks of rock n roll Marah managed to create something that is compelling and uniquely them. It’s not like they were trying to sound different, in truth it seems that they set out to create nothing more than American roots-rock music in the grand tradition. A noble enough aim but one which they bypassed in spectacular fashion. Their slightly skewed vision allowed them to assemble these building blocks in a way that makes them stand out from other bands playing in the same sandpit. What could have been dreary in another band’s hands (and frequently was, Mr Petty) came to exuberant, playful life in theirs.

This was absolutely real and natural not some kind of carefully crafted artifice. Their approach to the music came from a different direction to most of the rest of us, and thank goodness for that. Take this explanation of their sound from Dave Bielanko as a perfect encapsulation of that offbeat approach “I wanted it to sound like the Scooby-Doo van… a clanging, calamitous sort of sound…” Indeed! He wasn’t exaggerating when he said their sound was “… not real, it’s an illusion” something he considers the best possible outcome any artist could have.

This effect was created by songs that sound as though they are emerging from some kind of magical ether just a few seconds before being played. Discovered rather than written. Then delivered with arrangements that seem to meander amiably through different musical back-yards, collecting an assembly of cast-off instruments (banjo’s, clavinet, accordion, bagpipes, autoharp, pedal steel, harmonica…) which battle for space in the band’s imagination.

All of this combines to give us some kind of fleeting, Spectorish, kitchen-sink Americana. At once joyous and plaintive and always revelling in the crazy, giddy, passionate exuberance of pure rock n roll, taken at face value not dissected or pored over.

The nature of Marah’s music is pretty widely acknowledged. Whatever you read about them will say similar things and when you listen you will get it straight away. What’s less generally recognised is the splendour and emotional engagement of their lyrical worldview which has always seemed to me like the rock n roll equivalent of romantic poetry. Not romantic in the usual girl-meets-boy sense, rather in the way that it emerges from the Bielankos’ reflections on their interactions with their environment.

Their songs do this in a way that uses the language of blue-collar urban Philadelphia to express the sublime melancholy of their experience. Words tumble out one after another, in much the same way that their music is assembled and the result is potent songs that sound like nothing more or less than what Wordsworth called a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. So sorry to inflict such pretension on you and for failing to avoid a return to ‘pseud’s corner’ but this is just such a faultless depiction of their art and the effect it creates.

At the risk of further opening the door to critical scorn and ridicule from people who actually know and understand this stuff I would offer the final verse of ‘My Heart is the Bums on the Street’:

My heart is the smell of the sewer,

The taste of the lobster, the price of the wine
My heart is the rush of the traffic
The tug of the music, the scene of the crime
My heart is the crowd that keeps cheerin’
The trains by the river, the points that we score
My heart is this wondrous city
With its love and its life
And its one…slammin’ door

Indeed, they are ‘only’ rock lyrics and from a source that has never been much noted before but that does not diminish their power to create visions of the world we inhabit that both move us and make us think.

For all this our love for them endures and the story continues. One day we hear a snatch of music on the radio, or catch a glimpse of a half remembered cover image as we are flicking through our collection and think to ourselves, ‘hell, I remember them, I used to love Marah.’

We realise, with a certain regretful twinge, that they haven’t made a new record for 6 years and don’t really gig anymore except for the semi-legendary Christmas shows in their hometown.  We note that these Christmas shows are a sign of their unapologetic sentimentality. They still remain completely unabashed and unembarrassed about wearing their rock n roll heart on their sleeves.

Are they “The Last Rock n Roll Band” then? Nah, not really. But if they were it would be a pretty good place to end up.

Discography:

‘Proper Albums’
Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later On Tonight 1998
Kids in Philly 2000
Float Away With the Friday Night Gods 2002
20,000 Streets Under the Sky 2004
If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry 2005
Angels of Destruction! 2008
Life Is a Problem 2010
Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania 2014

Other Albums

Kids In Amsterdam – Live 2004
A Christmas Kind Of Town 2005
Float Away – Deconstructed 2005
Sooner Or Later In Spain – Live 2006

This 2004 live show captures what you need to know about the band, probably better than their actual records.

… and here is the quintessential track from the best album:

Author: Guy Lincoln

I’m a waning academic and hesitant PhD student taking on reviewing as a way to engage with something more meaningful. I’ve loved this Americana stuff since before it was even alt-country, so it’s time to see if I can communicate this feeling beyond my affective imaginings (I'm trying to escape from pseud's corner too!).

4 thoughts on “AmericanA to Z: Marah”

  1. Thanks for this great write up of a great band! Love your passionate and uncynical words, perfect for a passionate and uncynical band. I only know two of their albums, but I’m going to dive into more…and if that isn’t music journalism doing what it should do, I don’t know what is! Thanks again!

  2. Blimey Jonathon, ‘passionate and uncynical’. thank you. It’s lovely to be described like that (even if just the writing!). More importantly though you captured in 2 words what’s so ace about this band, better than I managed in 2,000. Bloody good work fella.

  3. Kids in Philly is still one of the greatest rock-n-roll albums EVER! “Far Away You” makes me cry every time I listen to it, even now 20 years later. Marah was a band that had its heart in the right place for so many of us. The problem is, the rest of the world was apathetic. It was an honor for my band to warm up for them when they came to Detroit. They, like The Replacements before them, kept rock-n-roll alive when it needed it most.

    1. too bloody right matt. writing this piece i found out that ‘kids in philly’ had been re-released on vinyl. i bought it again and have spent the last fortnight sitting in slack-jawed awe its transcendent beauty. for today at least, it comes second only to ‘pleased to meet me’. i’m off to listen to both again to make a final choice!

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