As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 20, 2004
Four years ago, the band Marah, then under the tutelage of Steve Earle, released Kids in Philly, an exhilarating, exuberant shout of freedom. There were Van Morrisonish soul shuffles, Bruce Springsteenlike tales of street characters, in a fresh sound colored by ringing Mummers banjos.
The best song on the album was “Round Eye Blues,” a frightning account of the Viet Nam in which the rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack of the war takes on new portentous dimensions in the midst of a firefight. “I was shakin’ like Little Richard/I was sweatin’ like old James Brown …”
But the Philly kids’ follow-up, Float Away with the Friday Night Gods was an overproduced, empty sounding disappointment. A big blast of nothing.
It’s one thing for musicians to want to experiment and want their art to grow. It’s another thing to lose touch with who they are.
But now Marah has returned with 20,000 Streets Under the Sky, a new record that returns to the rootsy, soul-driven sound that made their fans love them in the first place.
And yes, there’s even banjos on the song “Pigeon Heart.” (not bluegrass banjo, but brightly strummed Mummers style, adapted from the music from Philadelphia’s Mummers Day Parade.)
Marah has been compared with Springsteen, Morrison, Tom Petty, fellow Phillyite Phil Spector among others. I hear some echoes of Elvis Costello and Graham Parker in Marah’s sound too, especially on the new album. Listen to the doo-wop drenched “Pizzaria” (a rare lead vocal from Serge) and the love ballad “Sure Thing.”
20,000 Streets starts off with a relatively slow reflective tune, “East,” with a prominent flute and harmonica playing off the guitars. It fades into a classic early Mercury Revish cacophony, including the sound of one of those obnoxious auto burglary alarms that serves as a bridge into the second song “Freedom Park.”
This tune is the real beginning of the album. It’s a high-charged soul sing-along that hijacks Little Anthony & The Imperials’ “Shimmy, Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop” to celebrate a concrete covered place near the airport that used to be a park, now full of broken glass and bittersweet memories.
The most unforgettable character on 20,000 Streets is the transvestite prostitute in “Feather Boa” who hates his own manhood and foresees a violent end to his sad life.
“Standing on the corner/Alone with the wind/Cocaine in his system/And it’s colder than it’s ever been.”
But the most touching story on the album is found in the song “Soda,” the tale of a doomed interracial romance. The most heartbreaking part of the song isn’t the hateful death of the main character. It’s the verse where he explains, “They call me `Soda’ because when I was a baby/My mother was so young/That soda was all she gave me/ It made me sickly, that’s why I shake.”
When Marah’s at its best, they can make you shake in more ways than one.
Marah will play The Paramount, 331 Sandoval St., 10 p.m. Monday, Aug. 23. Tickets are $5.00
The Great Battle by Jon Dee Graham. Graham is known for the growl in his voice. But Graham’s vocals are full of a world-weary resignation. It’s as if he knows he won’t get the girl, won’t come out on top, and in general, that he stands a good chance of messing everything up.
And even so, this former bandmate of Alejandro Escovedo (in the long departed True Believers) can moan a perfectly beautiful tune about “The Majesty of Love” without a hint of irony.
At first I was somewhat disappointed that this album doesn’t have any rockers half as fierce as “Laredo (Small Dark Something)” from his previous album Hooray For the Moon. And nothing as off the wall as his inspired cover of “Volver” from that album.
Indeed, Battle, produced by guitar whiz and Dylan sideman Charlie Sextron, is just a slower, more somber album. And while it might not knock you in the head, it will claw for your gut.
One of the most memorable songs here, “Robot Moving” is a slow burner in which the singer marvels about the fact he’s still waking up in the morning. “I always swore I’d never use the word `irony’ in a song,” he moans (after he’s already used the word in all the preceding verses) “ ’ course the irony is I never meant to live so long.”
Indeed, coping with the dismal dregs of middle-age is an ongoing thread through many songs here. On “Something to Look Forward To,” Graham sings about going home from work, watching cop shows on t.v. (“watch the poor people fight”) and waking up the next morning wearing last night’s clothes. “It was supposed to be different now,” he sings.
But the narrator of these tunes can wax optimistic without sounding like Little Mary Sunshine. “You give me something to look forward to,” he sings to a woman who apparently is willing to put up with a guy who passes out in front of the tube watching cop shows.
And in the album closer, “World So Full,” a sweet ballad with a melody that suggests gospel (and a steel guitar part that suggests jazz), Graham, “I know it’s hard, but I know it’s sweet/complicated and incomplete/But I am in love, I’m still in love/with a world so full.”
As always, Graham’s choice of covers is interesting and he makes the songs his own.
There’s a fast-paced rendition of Neil Young’s “Harvest” that almost makes you wish Neil would have done it this way instead of the plodding faux-country style of the original.
Graham gives the old gospel tune “Lonesome Valley” a new blues-drenched melody. But more important, he give it his raspy roar. He turns it into a proud declaration for loners and iconoclasts everywhere.
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