By Jim Schutze
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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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It's not surprising that Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity, counts Marah as one of his favorite bands. They're exactly the type of band his most famous protagonist, Rob Fleming, would obsess over. The band even wrote a song set in a record store eerily similar to Fleming's Championship Vinyl (the exquisite B-side "Why Independent Record Stores Fail"). With an adventurous but accessible sound encompassing Philly soul and Springsteen swagger, as well as a singer whose tar-stained vocal cords can lend gravity to any tune, it's easy to see why Marah is a record store clerk's dream come true. But in another time and place, the band's music could have been blasting out of teenagers' car stereos as much as the bedrooms of music nerds.
Marah's latest album, If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry, is the rock album kids used to listen to in pre-MTV America. From the perfect sequencing to the spot-on cover art, which looks like the notebook doodles of an obsessed teenage rock fan, the disc is a throwback to another era, before singles sold for 99 cents on iTunes and before people ignored the enriching experience of the LP for the shuffle function on their MP3 player.
"Quite frankly, I'm a little bit bored with fucking mass-marketed, auto-tuned, hellacious music," says Dave Bielanko, who fronts Marah along with brother and fellow songwriter Serge. "I still find the rock and roll album can be an amazing thing. It seems to me we've become a very cultish band, and the people that like us feel an emotional connection and feel like they know us, and I think that's high praise."
In fact, the emotional connection some fans feel to Marah borders on dysfunction, which the band learned the hard way after the release of their uncharacteristically glossy third album. Float Away With the Friday Night Gods dispensed with the messy horn parts and banjos of the band's earlier work in favor of a guitar-heavy, Brit-pop-influenced sound. Longtime fans didn't take kindly to the change.
"We made that record, and it felt like a chapter in a book that we wanted to do," Bielanko says. "And then when it was over, I was receiving prank phone calls at my house, and grown men were fighting each other or whatever about it...God, if it affects you that much, and if you feel that betrayed by us, then that's kind of flattering. It's like, jeez, I'm that important to you?"
Marah has never been the type of band that cares about pleasing everyone at every turn. "I don't think we ever wanted to be a plodding, slow, careful artist a la Bruce Springsteen," Bielanko says. "I would much prefer to be Neil Young or Bob Dylan, where when it's a masterpiece, it is a fucking masterpiece, and when it's not, I'm just painting, you know? I'm just painting. Put another canvas in front of me, I'll try again."
Try again they did, regrouping in their native Philadelphia in 2004 to record 20,000 Streets Under the Sky, a slightly slicker return to the sound of the band's cult-building first records (the perfectly titled Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later On Tonight and Kids in Philly, a sonic love letter to the city of brotherly love). But it's 2005's Laugh, recorded live and raw in the studio (with some songs recorded in one take), that is Marah's return to form.
The band intended the LP to be a folk record informed by the Bielanko brothers' love of Townes Van Zandt and Nick Drake, and though it may be more folk than almost anything they've done before, rock and roll couldn't help butting its head into the proceedings, with "The Hustle" and "Fat Boy" standing as two of the most incendiary performances Marah has ever committed to tape. The album also contains more vocal turns by Serge Bielanko (three songs in all) than ever before, a refreshing development since he's always been as integral to the band as his lead-singing brother. The two have traditionally split songwriting duties, with each writing separately and then serving as each other's "bullshit detectors." Obviously, they can't help but be competitive as songwriters, but Dave doesn't see it as a problem. "It's actually a great motivator," he says. "Trying not to be outdone by the other guy."
Now based in New York City, the Marah that plays on Laugh is the latest in a line of many incarnations, with Dave and Serge the only constants--but the line-up changes certainly haven't hurt the band's live presence. Famous for two-hour-plus marathon sets of sweat and beer-fueled rock and roll, Marah's shows are the stuff of legend, comparable to those of obvious influence Springsteen. "When we walk onstage, it's us versus you," Bielanko says. "It's very primal, and I think that we have fought to not get too far away from that. It's not about professionalism. It's about rocking the party and bringing this thing that maybe people won't see all the time."
The band's tour for Laugh has even included some dates with friend and fan Hornby. "He wrote some amazing essays about rock and roll that are very much written from the audience perspective and are very cool and humble and punk rock," Bielanko says. "And we said, you wouldn't have to read [the essays to fans] in a Borders bookstore, but you could do it in a nightclub setting in front of people with pints...and it worked out really good." So far, the dates with Hornby have mostly been limited to Europe, but the band is hoping to do more in the U.S. in the near future.