Marah – After the gold rush
It’s a fine spring day in New York City, but Dave Bielanko — who along with his brother Serge forms the core of the Philadelphia-bred rock ‘n’ roll band Marah — is not outside soaking up the clement weather and gritty urban atmosphere that has inspired his group’s best music. He’s indoors, supervising some 11th-hour tinkering on a radio edit of “Freedom Park”, the midway ride of a first single from Marah’s fourth album, 20,000 Streets Under The Sky.
If and when “Freedom Park” comes blaring out of top-down car radios or street-corner boom boxes, it will very likely be the damnedest thing we will hear this sweaty season. It roars out with a seismic surge of guitars and a female backing chorus chanting skip-rope rhymes before dropping away to Dave’s voice singing Serge’s words, which paint the scene of a young couple finding refuge from big city blues in a garbage-strewn playground.
“Freedom Park” is already an astonishing minute-and-a-half old before the drums first thunder into the fray to kick the chorus even higher. But like much of 20,000 Streets Under The Sky (released June 29 on Yep Roc Records), the exuberance of the music is offset by the specter of violence and tragedy (“We walk out past the spot/Where there used to be a swing set/Where a little girl got shot”). The eleven songs have a cohesion and narrative flow that matches the richness of the music; if 20,000 Streets Under The Sky was a movie, it would be Scorsese’s Mean Streets shot in VistaVision and recorded in Sensurround.
It sounds nothing like the music that currently obsesses the media and the marketplace, but it does sound like 1972 with a bullet. “Freedom Park” and 20,000 Streets betray a love for that irony-free, pre-MTV era, when musicians weren’t ashamed to ascribe literary and musical ambition to their work; that free-format time when rock ‘n’ roll snuggled on the charts next to soul, R&B, country and traditional pop; when the goal was to make history rather than make it on Total Request Live.
That was a time when artists managed to conjure up passionate, uncompromising albums such as Born To Run or London Calling or What’s Going On or There’s A Riot Going On. The jury’s still out on whether the Bielankos will have a place in that pantheon, but what can’t be disputed is that their eyes are on the right prize.
20,000 Streets was made in every sense as an indie project. Last year, after the misfire of their third record, the uncharacteristically glossy Float Away With The Friday Night Gods, the brothers pooled what remained of their meager resources to buy some antique recording gear and returned to their run-down Philly clubhouse-cum-studio (located above an auto shop). With a handful of guests plus engineer/multi-instrumentalist Kirk Henderson, lap steel master Mike “Slo Mo” Brenner and, later, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster (all of whom subsequently became part of the touring band), they sweated for months to make this music.
Mission accomplished; they made the album of their lives. Now they want to make it a part of your life. So they must turn their attention to the tricky business of getting people to hear their work. Hence, the radio edit. At 4 minutes, 35 seconds, the track has been deemed a tad too long for modern radio. “It is a bit above the safety zone,” Dave says. “It is funny what you can take out and still get the effect…and then tie it back together. We definitely have it back to a workable place right now.”
As we shall see, finding a “workable place’ between their art and modern music biz dictates has been a struggle for Marah in the past. But 20,000 Streets Under The Sky has Dave and Serge comfortable with whatever the future holds, notwithstanding the odds.
“All rock ‘n’ roll bands today run the risk of being incredibly obsolete. Rock ‘n’ roll is not a younger man anymore. It’s an older guy that still goes out to the clubs once in a while. But he is getting older. And he wants to go to bed,” chuckles Dave, 29.
“I feel like there are people on my block that would love our band, and they have never had the opportunity to hear us. And that burns me up a lot,” he adds. “But I am very at peace with this record. I know who we are and I know what this is. I am not concerned with what critics are going to say about it. But I am very concerned that they may, god willing, help us out getting to those people who need music in their life and they don’t find it on the radio or on MTV.”
At a round of spring gigs, Serge introduced the new album’ leadoff track, “East”, as a song about the B-side of life. So here’s how Marah got through some of the scratches and bumps they encountered on the A-side.
The last time this magazine wrote at length about Marah, it was ND #25, January-February 2000, as part of a package piece featuring five rising stars on the alt-country horizon. At the time, Marah was poised to release its second album, Kids In Philly, via Steve Earle’s E-Squared label with distribution by Artemis.
Kids In Philly was a prodigious piece of work, blending the low-tech, high-torque sound of gutbucket rock, funk and soul with Mummer’s Day banjo and the Bielankos’ beatnik prose, which conjured a multi-dimensional Philadelphia cityscape that never traded specificity of place at the expense of universal truths.
On good nights, Marah’s frenetic live show saw the band playing as if their very lives depended on delivering each set, each song, each note and each word at full throttle. Marah’s parochial fan base spread beyond the City of Brotherly Love. Things were looking up.
There was one nagging issue: Not enough people bought Kids In Philly. (To date, its Soundscan sales are about 16,000.) On 20,000 Streets, there’s a song called “Goin’ Thru The Motions” that sums up Marah’s dilemma: “Don’t look so surprised/When you’re shameless, nameless, empty-pocket famous/Gazing sadly up to heaven on your way back down.” Having failed to move beyond their dedicated core of fans, Dave and Serge were decidedly empty-pocket famous.