- The Washington Times - Monday, December 12, 2005


If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry

Yep Roc/PHIdelity Records

Marah’s latest album, the self-produced “If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry,” was recorded in nine days — a flash of lightning for a band of Spectorian obsessives.

“Never went beyond take three,” says one of the album’s scrawled liner notes.

The result is a looser, murkier, less composed Marah that sounds, perhaps for the first time, completely and unavoidably like itself. This is Marah sizzled to the bone. Every track here, whether skewing country, folk or full-throttle rock, glitters like a jewel in dirty snow.

Dave and Serge Bielanko, the brother tandem that fronts the band, moved from Philadelphia to Brooklyn, and their adoptive New York is a front-and-center character in the pub-rocking kickoff track, “The Closer,” in which a stumbling drunk spits out hilarious culinary metaphors (“Barbecue chips like me/We’re a hot spot of jelly inside your Krispy Kreme”) while trailing a rolling beer can in the city wind.

A grimy, unforgiving Gotham also figures in the bar-stool poetry of “Poor People,” “City of Dreams,” “The Dishwasher’s Dream” and “The Apartment,” all of which make for a concept-y affair that includes recurring snippets of music and — by way of introducing the very wordy “The Demon of White Sadness” — an attempt at wordless Beach Boys melisma.

Philly appears finally on the penultimate “Walt Whitman Bridge,” a jangly anthem about heartbreak: “A prayer in my heart I’m too scared to recite/Oughtta toss that stale loaf of words to the birds as a monument to my whole life.”

Marah’s ever-changing cast of support musicians has settled into a hard-rocking unit that backs the brothers with mutli-instrumental agility and style-switching flair. “The Hustle,” for instance, starts out like “Exile”-era Stones before segueing unexpectedly into a disco strut and ending with a Santana-like staccato finale.

Lyrically, the Bielanko brothers, who trade lead vocals, continue to turn out memorable character narratives. Dave barks out the word-drunk chronicle of “Fatboy,” about a man who offers up various acts of self-mutilation in exchange for love, while Serge spins the equally violent tale of a diner dishwasher who, at song’s end, wakes up in a night sweat (“The Dishwasher’s Dream”).

For the acoustic musings of “City of Dreams” and “So What if We’re Outta Tune (With the Rest of the World),” though, the Bielankos pare down the wordplay in favor of a beguiling concision. “Come on, darlin’, stay with me/Let’s cut through the crowd/and make the most of being lost in what time we’re allowed,” Dave croons, shakily but affectingly.

The thing, finally, that makes “Laugh” such a thoroughly enjoyable throwback listen is the density of its purposefully imperfect mix. Like lost treasures from the basement of Big Pink, these songs defy you to wait through multiple listens before you check the lyric book.

My favorite “What’d he say?” reward, for now, is found on the down-and-out rocker “Poor People”: “The mice are crazy from paint chip crumbs/as the iron lung of the ice box hums … There’s Cool Ranch dust on our lunch-time thumbs, and we treat each other rotten.”

It feels like you’re there, whereupon you immediately want to leave. Except that you can’t.

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