Brother 'Hood

Philly kids Marah mine the sights and sounds of their hometown for a brilliant sophomore effort

I know your mama told you all about getting value for your money, but don't grouse about the fact that Marah's Kids in Philly is shorter than the enhanced portion of most bands' CDs. Sure, subtract the two-minute hidden track of sound ambiance and doo-wop and you're left with only 35 minutes of music.

But the group's sophomore effort is hardly a rip-off. Marah loads up that scaled-down running time like a shopping cart during a supermarket sweep, cramming more ideas and joyous noise into one title than entire discographies of your average (or below average) new artist these days. "My Heart Is the Bums on the Street." "The History of Where Someone Has Been Killed." "It's Only Money, Tyrone." Not exactly records you want to ask for by name, but ones you'll find yourself quoting compulsively. This is an album you can easily fall in love with one line and one song at a time.

"That was the point," agrees singer Dave Bielanko, who co-writes all of Marah's material with brother/guitarist Serge. "There's so much music today that's so tedious and fucking boring. Long records, everybody's got 18 songs on their record and half of 'em suck. It's all marketing and publishing. You get paid for putting 15 tunes on your record and you do it. But it's not how Van Morrison or the Rolling Stones used to make records. Exciting records that actually went someplace between the first and the last song."

Philly's finest: Marah, with singer Dave Bielanko, in hat, apparently trying to capture Rocky Balboa's "Gazzo" period look.
Michael Branscom
Philly's finest: Marah, with singer Dave Bielanko, in hat, apparently trying to capture Rocky Balboa's "Gazzo" period look.

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Performing Saturday, August 12 at 9 p.m. with Truckers on Speed
Long Wong's in Tempe

Two albums into the game and already Marah is sounding like one of the greats, without any apparent calculation on their part. In Dave's back-of-the-throat drawl and the Bielanko brothers' urban inventories of abandoned junk, boys in the hood and waitresses on the clock, you hear traces of Tom Waits and early Bruce Springsteen (and when was the last time you heard a song that mentions weather charts, eh?). Marah's members wear their loose acoustic instrumentation and self-deprecation as badges of honor, not unlike the Replacements or the Faces. You might find yourself thinking of the Band, too, since Marah's homemade recordings also acknowledge the existence of old people, something virtually unheard of in today's teen-obsessed pop market.

One group Marah never gets compared to -- except to note that they both have albums with "Cut the Crap" in the title -- but should, is the Clash. The Clash, a band always hungry for new information or stimuli to digest and spit out, jumped from one obsession to the next, whether it was Montgomery Clift, Sandinistan rebels or Allen Ginsberg. On Kids in Philly, Marah runs through its hometown with camera eyes, hipping you to great fishing spots, lucky Dumpsters and gruesome murder scenes while bumping into legends like Philly DJ Hy Lit, who makes a talking cameo appearance on "Christian St."

And because Marah's members are indeed kids in Philly, the band is mighty proud of its mummer parades -- an annual New Year's Day festival held in the City of Brotherly Love. The cover of the new album is a snapshot of a young reveler at one such event in 1980. The kid in question is Marah bassist Danny Metz, seen risking future psychological damage by wearing a ridiculous Easter Bunny-goes-papal costume.

"It's definitely Irish-German in tradition. It came over here and ended up in Philadelphia just 'cause it's an old East Coast city that was settled pretty early on," says Bielanko of the event. "Philly women spend all year making costumes for their husbands . . . it's very competitive as well. There's a winner every year. It's sort of a status prestige award. And there's string bands playing very jovial freak-out music, I find to be very cool. Very similar to the Phil Spector sound -- it's very rock 'n' roll."

The album's opening track, "Faraway You," captures the dense sonic attack of a mummer parade -- people hollering, banging tambourines, xylophones, harmonicas and banjos, it's an atmosphere maintained throughout much of the album. Prick up your ear and you might even hear a guy belching on the corner.

"It's mostly an attempt at showcasing a song in a more dramatic way than opposed to trying to represent what we do live as a rock band. Sorta like making a movie as compared to being in a play. It's different," says Bielanko, almost apologetically. "That's the way it's been up to now, but I can certainly see us make a straightahead rock record. There's very little other than rock 'n' roll in what we're doing, but there have been a lot of other influences lately that have been bleeding in."

The largely acoustic instrumentation on the new record, and its predecessor Let's Cut the Crap & Hook Up Later On Tonight, is chiefly the result of the band recording all its material in its makeshift eight-track studio, centrally located above Frank's Auto Repair and a boarded-up bar in south Philly. And, as you can see in the panoramic photo montage included with the disc, noise ordinances aren't exactly a consideration.

"There are no neighbors down there; it's a little industrial strip. It's the 'hood," Bielanko says, chuckling. On the technical side, the band was learning how to put down sounds as it went along, which meant altering its instrumental approach a bit. "That's all trial and effort. You're limited in what you can do. We weren't able to achieve giant guitar sounds, but you take that and use it to your advantage if you want to get ahead."

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