The kids from Philly – Marah brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko – have left home for the big town, New York. And their new city reverberates through their new album, If You Didn’t Laugh… You’d Cry.
Philadelphia inspired Marah’s three landmark CDs: 1998′s debut Let’s Cut the Crap & Hook Up Later on Tonight; their stellar 2000 masterpiece Kids in Philly; and 2004′s stunner 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. With the exception of Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, few cities have been so beautifully revealed in song – warts and all.
Marah left home once before. Their ’02 going-for-the-big-time release, Float Away With the Friday Night Gods, sent them to England to team with Oasis producer/auteur Owen Morris. The CD was a make-fun-of-bubble-gum pop-rock misfire, more Morris than Marah. It flopped, although the band has deconstructed several of the best songs into fan-pleasing live tunes. And the album brought on the prodigal sons’ return to their muse city.
Now they’ve settled in Brooklyn. The brothers immediately cut If You Didn’t Laugh… and hit the road with an energetic sweat-and-glory live show touring the U.S. and Europe.
The big question is obvious: Did they pack up and bring their muse with them this time? The answer is a resounding yes!
If You Didn’t Laugh… is alternately freewheeling and wild, introspective and world-weary. It’s part straight-to-the-heart folk-rock, part off-the-cuff garage-band. In short, it’s got everything a great rock and roll album should have. Color it inspired.
As Serge Bielanko describes the album, “We decided to try something we’ve been dying to do for quite a while – record our band live in the studio – swift and raw…. Our reward? This record. This loose-ass album about the bittersweet feeling of recognizing yourself as a f***ed-up, dysfunctional, frightened, curious, sex-starved, jealous, loving, vengeful, financially-strapped drinking buddy, lover and human being. Splatter that canvas with six-strings, maracas, banjos, drums, wine glass rims, a barking dog, a tack piano, harmonicas, dulcimers, and vocals sung into my buddy’s dryer in Brooklyn. We finally found ourselves making the folk-punk record we’d always imagined.”
If You Didn’t Laugh… is alive with a new, universal sense of place. The opening lines of the kickoff tune, “The Closer,” feature Dave Bielanko stumbling down the steps of the Metropolitan after closing yet another bar, singing a song of rowdy and rebellious alienation. “The Walt Whitman Bridge” is pure urban blues while “City of Dreams” is a folksy Village number.
Overall, though, this album rocks as no other Marah outing has. Dave’s driving guitar work may not be that of a string-burning virtuoso, but it’s packed with emotion and intensity that many others lack. And when either Bielanko picks up the banjo, watch out! No one plays rock and roll on a five-string like Marah.
The high point of the album may be “The Demon of White Sadness,” a truly eerie nightmare about the demons riding all of our backs. The guitar riff is urgent and cool, Dave’s singing heartfelt.
The foundation of Marah has long been the songwriting of the brothers Bielanko, and If You Didn’t Laugh… turns another page. Dave’s lyrics are inspired, somewhere between beat incantations and the best rock and roll poetry; it’s not farfetched to compare him with Springsteen, Westerberg, or perhaps even Dylan. And the brothers’ melodies feature fine hooks, often ironic plays on music, blending sweet-sounding lines with bittersweet song sentiments.
This is honest, authentic rock, the likes of which few other bands understand these days. As one of Marah’s song titles states, “So What If We’re Outta Tune (w/ The Rest Of The World).” Call it a credo.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.