Your Marah Primer: Five Songs You Need to Know - by Joe Oestreich

Marah (Bielanko Brothers Acoustic) w/Colin Gawel Friday April 20th at Hogan House Productions.

Your Marah Primer: Five Songs You Need to Know  -  by Joe Oestreich

Of all the bands that got lumped into the imprecisely named ‘90s alternative country movement, Marah is my favorite. Sure, they were once signed to alt-country godfather Steve Earle’s E-Squared label, but Marah isn’t country. Marah is city. Less honky tonks and bass boats and more cheap Chinese joints, Vietnamese barbers, and muddy rivers that spit out Colt .45 bottles and bags of dead kittens.

The specific city in the case of Dave and Serge Bielanko—the brothers who started the band—is Philadelphia, but we’re not talking about the clichéd boxing-and-cheesesteaks Philly, about Balboa v. Creed and Pat’s v. Geno’s. Marah sings about the true Philadelphia, or at least a Philadelphia so dense with unexpected and raw detail that when listening to their records I assume it to be true. But even if it’s not, Marah’s melodies and lyrics are so freaking great, I’ll happily take the Bielanko Brothers’ word for it.

Should you go see Marah  play an acoustic house show in Columbus of Friday April 20th? Absolutely. (Click here for event info) Could I possibly write anything that would convince you that you should go? Maybe not. For nearly fifteen years writers far more accomplished than me have been trying to get people to queue up for Marah.  

Exhibit A: Nick Hornby writing for The New York Times .

Exhibit B: Stephen King (Click here for his favorite record of 2005)

So, yeah. You should go. But if you’re not yet ready to commit—if you’re still just Marah-curious—here are five songs you might consider when weighing your options.

1. “Christian Street” from Kids in Philly

Perhaps the most Phila-centric song on their most Phila-centric record. You get the sense that the Bielanko Bros. have a complicated relationship with their hometown. After all, they eventually moved away, relocating the band to Brooklyn for a time. Then again, judging by the street-level detail in this song, it’s clear that while they were living there, they were paying attention. And as Sister Sarah Joan says to Lady Bird in last year’s Oscar-nominated film, isn’t paying attention the same thing as love?

2. “What 2 Bring” from Float Away with the Friday Night Gods

For the follow-up to Kids in Philly, Marah moved about as far away from alt-country as they could, geographically (to London), artistically (the big shades and bubble gum on the album cover), and musically (the mega-chorus power pop of this song). This album pretty much tanked, but it made me love Marah for their disco ball-sized gonads.

3. “Pizzeria” from 20,000 Streets Under the Sky

Serge Bielanko’s doo-wop influenced ode to a slice shop that turned Chinese. If you can’t taste the garlic powder after listening to this song, then you obviously have no soul (or maybe it’s just because the sound quality on this video ain’t so hot).

4. “The Closer” from If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry

This is Dave Bielanko applying to Brooklyn that same eye for detail he once employed in cataloging Philadelphia. But now with added playfulness. Stick around to the end to find out how much it costs to have a Mississippi pickle applied to your Brooklyn buns.

5. “Angels of Destruction” from Angels of Destruction!

My computer is right now telling me that this is the thirteenth most-ever played song in my iTunes. More significantly, this song features perhaps the most honest and true lyric in rock history: I love you so much. Now let’s get something to eat.

Bonus! Exhibit C: Bruce Springsteen. In case the tunes above aren’t doing it for you, here’s an additional celebrity endorsement, straight from the rock and roll CEO.

Clearly, not going to the Marah’s Columbus show would amount to insubordination. I can’t speak for you, but I wouldn’t want that on my permanent record.

Joe Oestreich is the bass player for Watershed and the author of four books, including Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll and Waiting to Derail: Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown, Alt-Country’s Brilliant Wreck (co-written with Thomas O’Keefe), which is forthcoming in June.