So the ragged edged boys from Philly are back to confound us with yet another set of their working class sweat-covered songs. With Marah you always know that the songs will be well written slices of urban life full of alleyways, broken hearts, fishing trips, and bloody knuckles. The only heavy thinking comes before the laser hits the disc for the first time. The questions always center around what stylistic permutation the band is going to wade into. Are we going to get the budding alt-country flair of Let’s Cut the Crap & Hook up Later on Tonight? Perhaps the Born to Run Americana storytelling that echoes through Kids in Philly? Could it be the bloated and completely over wrought attempt at an Oasis big time that was Float Away with the Friday Night Gods? Or will we get the solid if unremarkable reloading of 20,000 Streets Under the Sky? With Marah you can always count on two things: 1) their live show is going to blow fuses all over whatever town they’re playing in (they’ve even shown the remarkable ability to transform the songs on Float Away with the Friday Night Gods into exciting even transcendent moments and that’s saying something), and 2) their records will never live up to their take no prisoners live show. In an effort to put these two parallel lines on a path more likely to intersect, Marah decided to record If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry live in the studio. The results are an album as satisfying as anything Marah has produced since those on-the-cusp-of-greatness days of Kids in Philly.
The first thing that you’ll notice about If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry is how comfortable it is. I don’t intend a connotation of “lazy” or “settling” here, what I mean is this record (much more than Float Away with the Friday Night Gods or 20,000 Streets Under the Sky) is the sound of a band that’s comfortable in its musical skin. There’s no studio gimmickry, no overblown choruses, no genre experiments of any kind, instead the Bielanko brothers seem so at ease that it becomes (for the first time in a while) easy to remember that Marah is a band with a uniquely original sound; a sound that’s built upon the best traits of indie rock, vintage country and classic rock.
The band is full of confidence and swagger showing an uncanny ability to infuse both mid tempo rock songs and punk infused folk (or folk infused punk if you prefer) songs with equal measures of derailed passion. Whether Marah is racing through a rock-a-billyesque rave up like “The Closer”, crashing through the blistering guitar work on “The Hustle” or picking up where Paul Westerberg’s best mid-tempo balladry stopped (so many years ago) on “Out of Tune”, “The Dishwasher’s Dreams” and “Walt Whitman Bridge”, this is the sound of a band captured before they, or anyone else, could knob twiddle the exuberance out of their songs.
If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry should be icing on the cake of a well received career full of kudos and packed concert halls. Instead it feels as if the band is just now living up to the promise of their early records. If this album was the follow up to Kids in Philly there’s little doubt in my mind that Marah would be feted like My Morning Jacket is today. Both bands are working a similarly American territory; they both wear their blues based classic rock roots on their sleeves. But where My Morning Jacket has refined a signature studio sound, Marah has been all over the map. I don’t think that Marah has any problems with penning excellent songs or putting on scorching live shows. No, Marah’s issues have consistently (or inconsistently) been the manner in which they’ve decided to produce and present those songs. When you listen to a song like If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry‘s “Demon of White Sadness”, a wonderful dose of Marah’s brand of urbanized heartland rock, be pleased that it’s loose but focused; try not to dwell on what a mess it would have been on Float Away with the Friday Night Gods. With the whole album recorded in just nine non-consecutive studio days there’s just not enough time to muck things up. And that’s clearly a really good thing.