Marah’s Music From Big Blue
Life Is a Problem, the seventh studio album from the band Marah, concludes with a cracked gospel track called “Bright Morning Stars,” wherein sawing fiddles, barrelhouse piano and some shaky harmonies teeter together into a vague declaration of faith. Which, coming after the world of experiences conveyed in the proceeding 10 tracks, must qualify as a faith hard earned. As the song shudders to a halt, singer/guitarist Dave Bielanko can be heard commenting off-mic to his collaborator, keyboardist Christine Smith: “That could be a messed-up track there, Smith.”
Given a superficial listen, Life Is A Problem could be consigned as a collection of 11 messed-up tracks. For some, it will sit awkwardly amid the Marah catalog, which has swerved from the streetwise beatnik poetry and gutbucket rock of 2000’s epochal Kids In Philly to the fumbled, under-appreciated modern-rock foray of 2002’s Float Away With The Friday Night Gods, then careened into their masterpiece 20,000 Streets Under The Sky from 2004 and onto what could have been their breakthrough, 2008’s Angels Of Destruction.
Emerging through difficult times is an achievement in itself. Coming out the other end having produced a valid work of art is a feat. Converting the tribulations of the past into a singular work of art such as Life Is A Problem is a triumph. As an autobiography of artists attempting to find their footing in the face of adversity, it is the most honest, open and human collection of songs Marah has yet produced. It may deny the listener the fist-pumping satisfaction of the group’s earlier epics like “The Catfisherman” or “Freedom Park,” but it trades those pleasures for something deeper, more challenging and ultimately highly rewarding. To borrow the language of modern technology, Life Is A Problem is a not a “lean-back” record; it’s an experience best appreciated in “lean-forward” mode.
Recorded mostly in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania Amish country, where Bielanko and Smith repaired after the Angels Of Destruction version of the lineup splintered on the eve of that album’s release (read more about that here), the sound of Life Is A Problem initially strikes the ear offhanded, casual, improvised, recorded on the fly, with vocals occasionally buried deep in the mix, as if the truths being told were too honest, too open to be laid out for easy consumption. Listen closely (headphones, if you must) and the intermittent cacophony of sounds is revealed to be a carefully appointed canvas of sound. Call it Marah’s Music From Big Blue.
“Sowed an endless row/Bleeding down a broken borrowed hoe,” Bielanko sings on “Valley Farm Song,” a clattering kitchen-sink arrangement of rubbed drums, fiddles, bagpipes, banjo. On the close-mic’d “Within The Spirit Sagging,” Bielanko and Smith harmonize as they portray themselves as lonely drifters searching for direction: “Some eyes go black as aces, some open into flowers, some people find their place is the dark side of the road, but oh to walk in twilight and balance in-between ’em.” On “High Water,” Bielanko sings: “There’s a hole in my boat/But nothing’s forever/So if my skip don’t float like it done when I was young” Again and again, the resolutions and optimism are the yield of earlier struggles and battles.
Marah fans may find some common ground between Life Is A Problem and the band’s ramshackle 1998 debut, Let’s Cut The Crap And Hook Up Later On Tonight, which was similarly recorded in situ – in the latter case not a farmhouse but above a South Philadelphia auto shop. But it also resembles Smith’s 2006 intensely intimate solo album, Tomorrow Blues and one of the great pleasures of Life Is A Problem is to listen to how her musical approach has been asserted and integrated into the Marah sound.
And in recent news, Marah is now on the road with a new lineup, and judging by a recent performance in Toronto, some of the Life Is A Problem material has congealed into more muscular form. Check out this rehearsal version of “Valley Farm Song.”
Top photo of Dave Bielanko by Suzanne Davis, with thanks.
Life Is A Problem is officially released on June 22 as an iTunes download, on vinyl and cassette (no CDs), available through the band’s website. A limited red vinyl edition is also available and the group is selling the album on tour.