Philly Pub-Rockers Present Daring Alternative to Difficult Art


Nick Hornby is full of shit. Actually, this is unfair to shit. At least life grows from shit. In his recent half-page essay printed on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, the lad-lit author stunned the music world with this revelation: They don’t make ’em like they used to! At least, I think that was the message. The thing is near incomprehensible when it comes to writerly bugaboos like logic and thought. In Hornby’s sad, blinkered, midlife-crisis-as-a-lifestyle-choice world, music is only worth listening to if it reminds him of all the classic rock that made him feel funny in the tum-tum when he was 10. The demons of his modern world: Britney and “difficult” art rock. Our hero cries: No way! I’ll take Marah, the humble Philly bar band! Though Hornby’s monthly column in The Believer is blissfully bereft of such bozo-isms, his Times piece manages to discount all the great crunk, grime, house, rap, metal, and dancehall that Kelefa Senneh has been writing so wonderfully about for the Times. Note to Op-Ed editors: Stick to Bush-bashing, ya friggin’ nitwits!

But what about Hornby’s great white hopes from the city that loves you back? Marah, and their founders, Dave and Serge Bielanko, have been making Springsteen-esque local-color roots rock for years, and they do it as well as anyone ever has. The rinky-dink piano, phlegmy semi-snarl, dirty streets, pizza boxes, and tattooed girls are all there on their new one, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. Cars are “burning chariots,” and the past is ever present. It’s folk music for aging city boys with all the mythos and tedium of backstreet life writ purple. (I take issue with the line “The river smelled like a fishmonger’s hands,” though, since really it’s the other way around.) “Goin’ Through the Motions” sounds like an older, wiser Smashmouth. “Freedom Park” ‘s jungleland has a breezy going-down-the-shore vibe and nifty shimmy-shimmy-coco-pop chorus. I’d actually like to hear the Boss sing the one about the drug-addicted transvestite hooker whose dick between his legs makes him want to cry; it’s pretty catchy!

One thing Hornby must love is that Marah are not only of the bar, but of the pub. Their plain slice of Philly doo-wop sounds like early Joe Jackson, and elsewhere it seems they’re gonna bust out a Graham Parker or Boomtown Rats medley. They are one of those bands you’d probably love if you were drunk and they started playing sloppy Replacements-style covers (which they do). Sound-wise, they’ve split the difference between their early lo-fi playfulness and their previous album’s studio sheen. Marah have always struck me as a band who just love to play, making no great claims for themselves. Which is why they don’t need to be propped up as an example of all that is good and holy in the heart of rock and roll that is still beating in Cleveland.