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Marah: 20,000 Streets Under the Sky

Jason MacNeil


20,000 Streets Under the Sky

Label: Yep Roc
US Release Date: 2004-06-29
UK Release Date: Available as import

When Marah put out their Kids In Philly album, I couldn't sing enough of their praises -- the gritty tunes that mixed a bit of Steve Earle with Springsteen and were more than capable of getting into one's bloodstream. So, in 2002, when they released the follow-up Float Away With the Friday Night Gods, I expected perhaps something a bit different but not the Brit-influenced disaster that ensued. Void of what Marah grew up on, a sea of Oasis-like guitars and a rush to turn their back on what got them there resulted in a lot of head scratching among many people. There were a few good tunes such as "Crying on an Airplane" but it paled compared to its predecessor. Now, having scrapped the deal with Artemis and signed to its rightful home on Yep Roc, the Bielanko brothers seemed to have realized what they do best. This album, which they have issued on their own imprint as well, manages to more than atone for the last go around. In fact, it probably surpasses anything they've done thus far.

The first tune on the 11-track, 44-minute romp through city streets and everyday is simply titled "East". Starting off with a brief flute it appears, the tune kicks off in a lovable Springsteen circa The River style mixed with touches of Mellencamp. Laid back and just like a well worn shoe, the song fits Marah's style to a science. "This evening the pigeons turn to bars of gold / In the sun's last light", Dave Bielanko sings as the light keyboards give way to more of an urban roots rock sound. It's a song that has radio-friendly single written all over it, but will probably be overlooked due to some idiotic politics. The instruments most have come to expect them to use are also here -- the mandolins, the harmonicas and the sweet harmonies that set the tone early. The fun also has returned in the quirky, old-school rock and roll doo-wop influences. "Shimmy shimmy coco bop, shimmy shimmy yeah", a group of girls contribute on the infectious opening to "Freedom Park". Talking about the environs around the Meadowlands Highway and a story about fleeing here to escape, it takes the album to another lovable, sing-along, hand-clapping level. And after the initial chorus, it shifts into another gorgeous gear. Even the ending culminates in something the E Street Band was doing a quarter-century ago.

"Feather Boa" takes things down just a touch as horns are added on the rather barren tune about a junkie with lines about his skin being "Bar room shark fin". Both brothers have great harmonies with guitarist Serge Bielanko off in the distance but still giving just as much as his sibling. Still just as melodic, the song seems to be softer and not as party-sounding despite more hand claps. It's a brief and slight departure though as "Goin' Through the Motions" has rock but also a distinct '70s guitar working its weaving magic throughout. While not the easiest song to get into, the track gets going on verse two. It sounds as if they've taken some '60s girl group tune and revamped it, but this is not the case. "Sure Thing" is Dave Bielanko's time to shine as Bittan-like keyboards have the singer wearing his heart on his sleeve a la Elvis Costello. The group go down the same road somewhat later on during "Soda". Perhaps the highlight thus far, on a personal level, is "Pigeon Heart", which, if you know anything about Marah, has that same slow building vibe as "Faraway You" from Kids In Philly. You know it's going to break out at some point but you'll wait for the mandolin to be assisted by the drums. And when they do, Marah are off to the races almost as quick as Smarty Jones with a Stonesy swagger to boot.

"Pizzeria" is definitely a doo-wop ditty as they start off with little more than hand claps, harmonies and a subtle bass line. But they add instruments into a larger-than-life barroom, feel-good tune about, well, a pizzeria. Go figure! "Body" returns to a format like "Feather Boa", but has more substance and is a bit more winding. A closing instrumental called "20,000 Streets" takes on a life like that of the coda of Derek and the Dominos' "Layla". On the whole, Marah are back where they belong and this album does nothing to convince you otherwise. Possibly their crowning, or, for these guys, baseball capping achievement!

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