20,000 Streets Under the Sky (Yep Roc)
When Philadelphia's Marah open their fourth album with a song called "East," they're not talking direction. They're talking location.
"Tonight 'east' is all I need to start to feel defined," sings the gravelly-voiced Dave Bielanko, explaining a few lines later that he's a man who's come to understand that "where he's from is more than where he's been." The song also serves as a statement of purpose: Marah's new 20,000 Streets Under the Sky belongs wholly to the streets and old Italian and Irish working-class neighborhoods of America's urban Northeast. For Bielanko and his guitar-playing brother Serge, the album returns to the swirling carnival sound that had made Marah's first two albums, 1998's Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight and 2000's Kids in Philly, so memorable.
The Bielankos, who play with a revolving cast of drummers and keyboardists, streamlined their sound on 2002's Float Away With the Friday Night Gods, but the move alienated some of their fans while failing to capture any mainstream radio airplay. Lessons learned, the new album sounds like the logical follow-up to Kids in Philly. The songs strut to a sprawling soul-rock cacophony, using playground chants, sha-la-la harmonies, background chatter, car-horn and boom-box blasts to add atmosphere to every track.
"East," for instance, opens with a flute solo and a sashaying rhythm, only to shift gears once the lyrics start; then, at the end, the flute and some bagpipe-like notes float in again. It's like that throughout the album, with saxophones, clavinets, banjos and trombones emerging here and there, as if emanating from different storefronts as Marah parade their tunes down a bustling street.
The sonic quirks aren't all that give the album its geographic flavor. Bielanko's detail-rich dramas are packed with true-to-life characters that include transvestite hookers, drug deals gone wrong and a spastic Puerto Rican teen named Soda who got his name because his mother, too young to know better, weaned him on cola as a baby. "It made me sickly so that's why I shake / Like I'm scared or something / But Hannah I ain't," he tells his Chinese-American girlfriend, the daughter of the owner of a countertop fried-rice restaurant.
Love songs like "Sure Thing" and "Freedom Park," the latter driven by an impossibly catchy school-girl chant of "shimmy shimmy koko pop," are set amid city landmarks and turn into intoxicating celebrations of urban life. "Pizzeria," a tribute to a long-gone neighborhood hangout, cites dollar slices, Italian ices and a back-booth introduction to cocaine.
From the start, Marah have drawn Bruce Springsteen comparisons, and the influence of early E Street songs like "Rosalita" and "Blinded by the Light" is obvious. But Bielanko doesn't write about cars or chasing dreams; his sharp character sketches have more in common with Martin Scorsese's New York films or Lou Reed's street-corner dramas.
Musically, the band weave various threads pulled from Northeastern rock 'n' roll, including doo-wop, the Young Rascals, the New York Dolls, the J. Geils Band and Brill Building gems like "Under the Boardwalk" and "Up on the Roof." Marah don't sound exactly like any of the above bands, though they do them all proud by doing what made the others great: taking the limitations of their surroundings and elevating them through songs that passionately celebrate who you are
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