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.

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 otherthan 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."

Originally, the Bielanko brothers had been in a handful of high school garage bands together, playing material not entirely dissimilar to Marah's current stock-in-trade. Serge wasn't initially involved when Marah started up in 1997, although he ended up joining when he heard the combo playing a batch of songs he and his brother had written years before. "He wasn't doing anything then. Just smoking pot and dropping out of college," Dave Bielanko recalls. "But I never gave it up because I didn't want to get into drywalling. It was rock 'n' roll or nothing. I knew he'd come back, and eventually he did."

Because of the rootsy flavor of Let's Cut the Crap & Hook Up Later On Tonight and the recorded sound of fishing reels being cast on two consecutive albums, people tend to think of Marah as a No Depression/Americana act, a tag Bielanko hopes will fade with time. "People are thrown off by the banjo thing a little, that we appear to be a bluegrass candidate," he offers. "But when I hear a banjo, I think of mummers. It's a Philadelphia thing, an urban thing."

While not eager to be lumped in with the alt-country scene, the band did connect with one of the genre's figureheads, Steve Earle. Earle eventually brought the band to his E-Squared label, which released Kids in Philly this past March through Artemis, a New York-based indie founded by former Mercury honcho Danny Goldberg.

Earle was in the middle of his bluegrass experience touring behind The Mountain with the Del McCoury band when he happened upon a copy of Let's Cut the Crap, released on the Black Dog label (owned by Blue Mountain singer Cary Hudson) in 1998. In Marah, he probably heard something of himself, a guy who loves Bill Monroe's music, even when the Stones play it. "Steve didn't have the first record until it was out in stores, and we had never met each other," says Bielanko. "After the record came out, he flew up to Philly to see the band and we hit off a relationship, started playing songs together back and forth. During the process of making Kids in Philly, he came by once in a while to listen to what we were doing."

There have been some rumblings in Nashville circles that Earle's overly controlling involvement with the V-Roys -- a roots-rock band he signed and produced -- led to their breakup after two albums. His participation with Marah, however, mostly came in the form of sage advice, since it wasn't certain the band would even sign with his imprint.

"He didn't produce our record. He understands we're young and got hard heads and wanna do things our way," says Bielanko. "I wanna learn my own way because I'm planning to do this for a long time. Obviously, listening to our record, we can write well, but we're not looking for a big hit song. So in trying to do a different thing, we didn't produce it to be a radio record and now we've got a label trying to shop it to radio. That's saying something really good; it's inspiring to us that people are getting behind it. We can do 'em a little favor in the future and communicate a little better. Listening to the record in retrospective, it's a challenging record."

There are indeed some Excedrin moments where it seems the band doesn't know when to stop adding on the ambiance, like "From the Skyline of a Great Big Town," which sounds as if a radio is caught between two opposing frequencies. But the experiment works wonders elsewhere on a track like "Round Eye Blues," which tugs you in two emotional directions. The band cross-breeds the Ronettes' hopeful "Be My Baby" with the Police's brooding "Every Breath You Take" and grafts on top of that the most frightening lyrics about post-Vietnam stress syndrome since Springsteen's "Shut Out the Lights." When Dave finally sings "Be My Baby," it's an overdue cry for help: "Hold your breath, boys, hold your breath/Finger your trigger and welcome death/'Cause the chopper's filled with your gutshot friends and your hearts are filled with fear." And this, coming after a kick-ass song about catching catfish in the Delaware!

"It's definitely a storybook record," Bielanko says. "Serge and I both write very evenly. We don't write together, but we both write. It seems to have become a singular voice, and that's pretty cool."

"The other cool thing about the Kids in Philly record is, despite the way it appears in your record store, it was made completely outside of the 'business' -- in a garage in south Philly -- and then it was sold to the label. It was the focused vision that people got. Ultimately, we convinced Steve and he convinced Danny Goldberg at Artemis and the whole thing fell into place."

Currently, Marah is on the road with Earle, who released his latest, Transcendental Blues, this past June. Soon they will join the Musicmaker.com tour, playing side-stage support to the Who and Jimmy Page and the Black Crowes. "We've been out playing for quite a while; we're clinically insane now," says Dave, who finds himself having to write songs on tour for the first time ever. "We're thinking hard about it. This next record for us is gonna be a very important one. And because Kids is such a short and challenging record, I want to follow it up within a year. The best-case scenario is you keep up that pace because people appreciate it."

Adult alternative radio stations who've already forgotten who the Counting Crows were and are probably fed up waiting for another Wallflowers album should have no trouble embracing Kids' first single, "Point Breeze." The track is also the one drawing the most Springsteen comparisons, most likely fueled by the inclusion of an acoustic version of "Streets of Philadelphia" as the song's B-side.

"I'm a huge fan of Bruce, the way he writes songs, and I'm certainly a big fan of the first couple of records," nods Bielanko. "I see the comparison, but in a song like 'Point Breeze' where people hear Bruce, I was actually attempting to write a Lou Reed song. But it's cool because it's coming from the right place; people who listened to Dion Di Mucci and Phil Spector. And I'm listening to that, too."

"I'm definitely into rock 'n' roll right now," he continues. "I'm really digging these Steve Earle shows, they're inspiring. I'm listening to Bruce, and the Replacements have always been my favorite rock 'n' roll band. Things that are well-written and sincere. If it's real, we're digging it."

In the same breath, Bielanko offers that Marah may be nearing the dawn of a new period creatively. "The next record's going to have more melody, more rock 'n' roll," he stresses.

Though it seems an admirable goal, such a shift might be a potential cause for worry, that outside influences may smooth Marah's rougher edges, much the way manager/producer Jon Landau did with Springsteen. Like Marah, the Boss' early songs were populated with colorful characters in life-or-death situations. It seemed he chronicled every fleeting detail that sped by in his rearview mirror until reaching the Darkness on the Edge of Town, where the innocence got lost and every character was a loner stuck in dead-end city and a go-nowhere situation.

Bielanko, for his part, won't have any of that kind of talk. "Marah's still speeding around in a van," he says, laughing. "But we're gonna arrive somewhere pretty soon."

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