By Mark Guarino
When Bruce Springsteen bonds with the E Street Band, rock brotherhood looks incredibly romantic. But when real blood ties are involved, touring in a van and slugging it out in clubs is rarely a recipe for harmony. Read the bios of the Davies brothers of the Kinks or the Gallaghers of Oasis to understand why.
The Bielanko brothers found the difficulties of balancing creativity within a family situation the hard way when their band Marah was first cheered as the next important band of the moment, received accolades from high profile admirers and then became ensnared in music industry indifference.
The hard scrabble disappointments have made other bands meekly return to the shadows, but for Marah, that would have been out of character with the music. Its four albums over a span of six years have been bold pronouncements of old-time rock and roll salvation, the kind Springsteen universalized in his early albums and still does in concert. Instead of the Jersey shore, Marah territory is the bleak backstreets of South Philadelphia which the band romanticizes in songs bulked up with a timeless innerworkings of doo-wop, soul, acoustic Americana and guitar rock.
Marah’s 1998 debut, “Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later On Tonight” (Black Dog) — also one of best album titles ever — received comparisons to Springsteen’s first album but deserves to be associated with the Replacements as well. Recorded on a seven-track above an auto parts store, its boozy horns, ragged guitars, cozy warmth and stories about lowlifes dreaming of the high life announced the arrival of a band that knew its influences and could filter them through a personal scope.
Dave Bielanko, Marah’s lead singer and younger brother to collaborator Serge, said when he listens to “Hook Up” today, “its sounds insane.” “It’s very passionate and very driven,” he said. “It sounds like … who we were at a certain moment. We didn’t feel we were making a record, we didn’t know what marketing was and we certainly didn’t understand the music business.”
The brothers were raised by a single mother in the city and decided to be in a band together in their early teenage years. When their first album received accolades — “High Fidelity” writer Nick Hornsby and critic Dave Marsh became early supporters — they were signed to E-Squared, the boutique label of Steve Earle that was distributed by Artemis. Their second album, “Kids in Philly” (E-Squared/Artemis) established the band’s reputation as chroniclers of streetcorner life. But Bielanko was beginning to realize critical acclaim didn’t necessarily pay the bills.
“We made the first two records really independently and they were really well received but we had nothing to show for it,” he said.
So when it was time to make a third album, the label decided to invest heavily, giving them their choice of producers. And after rejecting Prince and Phil Spector, the label okayed Owen Morris, who made his name working with major Brit-pop bands Oasis and the Verve. The brothers moved to Wales and witnessed the world of big budget studios. They made a conscious effort to write grandiose pop songs with little mention of their hometown (“you can ghettoize yourself easily. We were afraid of that,” Bielanko said). Springsteen, a fan since Marsh loaned him their albums, made a cameo, a rare coup. When it was finished, they were told by the label to fasten their seatbelts for the wild ride ahead.
They never got off the ground. Because Artemis has spent so much money on the album, they had nothing left for touring or promotion. The album disappeared amid grumblings among hardcore fans that Marah had lost their way. It remains their disrespected classic and a showcase for how far their songwriting skills could flourish on a big budget.
After that, the brothers asked to leave Artemis (“when they signed Boston, we didn’t know what was going on,” he said). They fired their manager and booking agent and started from scratch. “20,000 Streets Under the Sky” (Yep Roc), their new album, is a return to their early sound but is a definite departure from it too. There are sing-song melodies, big-sounding production numbers featuring horns and bells, but the songs are characters studies, with the focus on Bielanko’s eye for fictional detail than first person confessions. “Feather Boa” is a romantic look at a down-and-out transvestite trying to survive street violence and “Soda” is a modern day “Romeo and Juliet” cast with two Chinese and Puerto Rican teenagers. Their references weren’t the Replacements or the punk albums they grew up with, but the urban romance of Motown.
“It becomes very cinematic. It scares some people, but it’s what I naturally chase,” Bielanko said. “I don’t blame people for not doing it because it’s not of the moment. To me, it translates to what we do live. That’s the springboard for the song to live night to night.”
He said he has no plans to return to a major but instead plans to hunker down and tour on their own as much as they can. “Almost every fan we’ve got, we earned them. If that is the point to build from and we’re starting anew, then I feel really grounded,” he said.
The new rules connect with the naivete that started the brothers down the path from the beginning. “Almost every kid decides that ‘we’re going to be in a band’,” he said. “For some reason, we never stopped thinking that.”