Marah: Life Is a Problem

The "Last Rock 'N' Roll Band" manages to resurrect itself with a career highlight in tow.


Life Is a Problem

Label: Valley Farm Songs
US Release Date: 2010-07-13
UK Release Date: Import
Online Release Date: 2010-06-22

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

The Force, which details the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts, is best viewed as a complimentary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017's Whose Streets? and The Blood Is at the Doorstep.

Peter Nicks' documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.