"Outside the dollar store I didn't have a broken heart..."

I first discovered Marah about a year after the release of Kids In Philly, 2000’s swaggering, brilliant homage to the streets of their hometown Philadelphia. The review, from a British magazine, was filled with the kind of fawning that was usually reserved for articles about the classics. In the 5-star review nearly all my favorite bands were name-checked, from Wilco to The Faces, The Replacements to Bruce Springsteen. The writer loved this album as much as any of those band’s most revered, and quite possibly more.

So, Kids In Philly came to me with high expectations, the kind that almost always result in severe disappointment. How could it live up to the comparisons to Born To Run, Being There, or Let It Be? My first listen went by in a blur. I only knew 1 song (“Round Eye Blues”), and found myself both confused and excited by the reckless energy and street-tough wordplay. I played it again. Then again, and again, over and over. For weeks. I too was soon thinking of this album in the same sentences as those classics.

At barely over 35 audacious minutes, the record is a whirlwind of dizzying sonics - radiant banjo, soulful horns, and infinite spirit. Each song lives its own life, each a completely original painting of a city by a band that might as well have been playing on the street corner, astutely observing every microscopic detail surrounding them. An easy and often cited reference point is early Springsteen, relocated just a short drive from the Jersey shore to the same streets Rocky ran at 4:00 in the morning. This is a fair and accurate comparison, although Marah are not as character-driven as the Boss. On Kids In Philly they are more interested in setting, whether it be the invitation to hang on “Christian St.”, to fish under a bridge, or just describe a city’s dirty secrets hidden in the river. They offer strikingly detailed accounts of the places where beautiful and terrible things happen all the time.

But it’s the heartbroken observances from a bus that I find myself absorbed into most often. Opener “Faraway You” kicks the album off disjointedly, a mess of drums, banjo and harmonica. Slowly the pieces start making sense when Dave Bielenko’s voice enters, observing the “rain-soaked mattress”, the “apartment house of death” and “horse cops tak(ing) the beat”. He graces us with one of the great lines in recent years as though it’s an afterthought - “outside the dollar store I didn’t have a broken heart”. All is well until the bus cruises past the park where his girlfriend is making out with someone who isn’t him, and the meticulous story he’s weaving is now about feeling helpless, as life goes on on the bus, and throughout the city, while his has seemingly ended. The chorus is a rush of harmony. The drums finally settle into a groove you can tap along to, and propel the song onward into the second verse, where he lays down to sleep on his front step, too dejected to try to get up after dropping his keys. Quite simply, my favorite song from one of my favorite albums.

MP3 :: Faraway You
(from Kids In Philly)

Purchase this seminal album for yourself, and anyone you know who's ever liked a rock and roll song, here.

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Michael D. Conley said...

Cool review. Its weird because the way you describe discovering Marah is exactly the same way I did, at about 17 years old. Round Eye Blues was the CD in the Uncut magazine, and I couldn't resist buying the album after reading that review.

Have you ever been to a gig? They're the best live band I've ever seen, and they hang around usually afterwards to chat to fans. I took the day off work last Friday to fly to Valencia to watch them, they were amazing.

James said...

Yeah, it was Uncut that got me into them. A big cover story on Bruce, the Marah review, and, I think, a feature on Ryan Adams (heartbreaker era). Great issue.

I've seen them live in NY quite a few times. Always excellent, but I prefer them in slightly larger venues (Irving Plaza, Bowery Ballroom) - much better sound than small clubs.

Thanks for checking in!

The Girl Who said...

Very cool review of my favorite band!

Coll said...

My beau introduced me to this band via Marah concerts galore (5 times and counting). This song is one that keeps me coming back for more and after reading your review, I'm feelin' the need for yet another listen... Nice write-up!