Sharps & Flats

Endorsed by Steve Earle, compared to Springsteen, Marah map out the streets of South Philly with an out-of-breath rock 'n' roll rush.


David Cantwell
May 1, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

"From the kids in Philly, dedicated to all the kids all over the world," declares jive-talking, old-school rock 'n' roll DJ Hy Lit. With that invocation, Marah rev up for a manic tour of their neighborhood. "Come on, come on, come on," the band insists on "Christian Street." The way they yell it, over and over, you'd swear that you could never possibly come fast enough to suit them. There's just so much to see.

"Kids in Philly," Marah's second album (and their first for Steve Earle's E-Squared label), takes a wild ride around the band's South Philly home. Often compared to Bruce Springsteen, Marah write E Street shuffling songs like "Point Breeze" and "It's Only Money, Tyrone." Like Springsteen, they're true believers in rock 'n' roll, in Jackie Wilson and Dion, in the Stones and the Replacements. The music here -- driving, frenetic rhythms embellished by accordions and horns and lots and lots of banjo -- comes off pinched and compressed, sung with an out-of-breath rush. The whole album sounds as cramped as the lives described in frontmen David and Serge Bielanko's songs. Every beat vibrates with rock 'n' roll aspiration.

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The centerpiece of the album is the remarkable "Round Eye Blues," a song about a Vietnam vet who, even as he stares out the window upon his urban neighborhood, still sees "tracers fly through the jungle trees." It sounds like the voice of one of those men in Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," one who made it home, set to a Phil Spector pop hit. Yet nearly all of the tune's soft edges have been stripped away, and the Wall of Sound now includes castanets, machine-gun fire and the wails of "gut-shot friends." Out there in those jungles, he says, "your hearts are filled with fear." Like a grunt running to reach the last chopper, he grabs onto the chorus of "Be My Baby," repeating it several times. It's a stunning moment, one that captures the way public traumas like war are always personal, the way they make personal relationships desperately important and the way those relationships, recognized and linked, can forge a community.

It is that sense of a community, of a specific time and place and the different people who all identify it as their home, that "Kids in Philly" expresses best. Marah's South Philadelphia is as vivid as Springsteen's Asbury Park or the Bottle Rockets' Festus, Mo. The streets Marah sing about feel boxed in, limited, because they are: Sections of Philly are among the most poverty-stricken urban areas in America. Yet, Marah insist, its residents keep it vibrating with life. In fact, the limits, and the ways that they are negotiated and endured, are their lives: "My heart is this wondrous city, with its love and its life and its one slamming door," David Bielanko sings at the end of a "doo-wop meets poetry slam" number called "My Heart Is the Bums on the Street."

The entire album is a series of slammed doors, of hearts that keep beating. In "The Catfisherman," pushed by an acoustic rhythm guitar riff that rocks harder than most electrics, a man fishes for food off a pile of rubble on the banks of the Delaware River. He knows his neighborhood well enough to carry a "sharp-ass blade case a motherfucker wanna make trouble." But mainly he's having a blast. "I got a radio play blues, soul and funk," he shouts. "It only gets one station, it's the one that I want!" The men and women here, in other words, don't simply make do with what they've been handed. They make joy -- or, as Litt puts it at the conclusion of "Christian Street" and as Marah put it all through "Kids in Philly," "rock 'n' roll."


David Cantwell

David Cantwell teaches college composition in Kansas City, Mo. He is a contributing editor at No Depression magazine.

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