Much has happened to Marah since last we checked in. In 2008, the band, led by brothers David and Serge Bielanko, released Angels of Destruction!. Allowing for the addition of keyboardist/vocalist Christine Smith, this was the second album by that particular lineup of the band — only the second time this has happened in the band’s apparently turbulent history. Some stability seemed good for the band, as Angels expanded upon the themes and styles of its predecessor, 2005’s If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Dry, already a career highlight. Then the drummer, bassist, and lead guitarist left in an explosion of bad vibes, Serge took a break, the band canceled a whole bunch of shows and somewhere along the line cut some new songs (mostly as a duo) in an Amish farmhouse in the Pennsylvania countryside.
Given its troubled genesis, it’s perhaps not surprising that the resulting album, Life Is a Problem, has a square one, back-to-basics feel about it. What is a little surprising is that Marah, in whatever incarnation, has sprung back from adversity with one of their best albums.
Life Is a Problem is closest in feel to their countryish debut, Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight, with arrangements giving prominence to the acoustic guitar and often banishing the drums to the background. This is underscored by the presence of “Muskie Moon”, a song that dates back to the earliest days of the band. Initially, this might seem cause for trepidation, not least because much of the band’s best work has benefited from an excitable, kitchen-sink attitude towards production. But once you get used to the idea that this record doesn’t feature many of the barnstorming rockers that used to be Marah’s trademark (“Put ‘Em in the Graveyard” is really the only one that sounds like the last lineup might’ve recorded it), its own oddly subdued and powerful charms emerge.
Life Is a Problem is also similar to Marah’s debut in that this is easily the band’s most sonically idiosyncratic — the weirdly murky but effective mix on “Valley Farm Song” would have had no place on the neo-classic rock of the last few albums, but fits right in here alongside folky stomping grooves and tear-in-your-beer laments like “Within the Spirit Sagging” or “High Water”. Or take the title track, where the full rhythm section doesn’t kick in until the last third of the song. Pushing the song along with only vocals, banjo, a melodic bassline, and a buzzing swarm of guitars instead of starting off at full blast is the kind of risk that only a mature, seasoned version of this band would take, and it pays off here fantastically.
The album flags a little towards the end (there’s a song fragment that offers a teasing glimpse of melody, but fades out before making much of an impression, and “Together Not Together” would have benefitted from a stronger verse to carry its faraway guitar sound and gorgeous chorus hook), but closes mightily with a triumphant version of the traditional “Bright Morning Stars”. Its refrain — “Day is breaking in my soul” — reaffirms the “new beginning” feel that characterizes much of this album.
Marah has been an underdog band for almost its entire existence. Whatever the story behind it. Life Is a Problem is the sort of ending that makes us care about underdogs in the first place. The band has emerged from a bad year or two, battered and bloody but ultimately vindicated, with a raw, beautiful career highlight to show for its troubles. Here’s hoping the next one comes easier… and soon.