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Not 'the last rock 'n' roll band'

But Marah has fans -- and fervor

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Marah
Marah's energetic live shows have brought the band many fans.

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(CNN) -- The Rolling Stones call themselves "the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band." The Clash was "the only band that matters."

And Marah is "the last rock 'n' roll band."

Which Serge Bielanko is not happy about.

"I never liked that slogan," he says in a phone interview from New York, as he strolls across an East River bridge during the city's transit strike. (At last check the line had been removed from the band's official Web page, www.marah-usa.com.) "[Years ago], a friend of ours took it upon herself to make 10,000 bumper stickers. She put that on there."

It took years to sell, give away or simply dispose of all the bumper stickers, he adds, and all for a slogan that he was honored by but thought was too arrogant for a scrappy band from Philadelphia.

Nevertheless, some observers would differ with Bielanko's assessment.

"I can hear everything I ever loved about rock music in their recordings and in their live shows," was how author Nick Hornby famously hailed the group in a 2004 New York Times column.

"These guys are either the American U2 or close enough for government work," writes Stephen King, naming the band's new album, "If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry" (Yep Roc/PHIdelity), his best of the yearexternal link in Entertainment Weekly.

The new album also received 4 1/2 of five stars from Allmusic.com, whose critic Tim Sendra wrote, "Every song is a direct punch to the heart, written and played with a fever that only the best rock 'n' roll has." (Full disclosure: It was also a 2005 favorite of this writer.)

Bielanko appreciates the compliments, but says Marah is just trying to do the best job it can.

"We've been doing this for a lot of time," he says. "We've seen a lot of bands come and go -- after one or two records, they're gone. ... We've had one- or two-star [records], four or five stars ... I just want people to love the records."

Change of pace

Marah has been kicking around since 1993, with the mainstays being Dave Bielanko, who started the band, and older brother Serge, who joined a couple years later. The group's urban roots come out in its sound, a melange of punk passion, Van Morrison soul and Springsteen wide-screen drama -- the latter of which makes for frequent comparisons to the Boss.

Serge Bielanko says the band's influences go well beyond Springsteen, but he doesn't mind the assessment.

"I grew up listening to that guy," he says. "He's probably my favorite entertainer. I like Television and Blondie [too], but Bruce is Bruce -- it's never a knock." He laughs. "I think we help Bruce sell records." (The brothers have appeared on stage with Springsteen, and Bruce guested on the band's third album, "Float Away with the Friday Night Gods.")

In 1998 the group put out its first album, the wonderfully named "Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later On Tonight" (perhaps the most forthright album name since the Replacements' "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash"). Two years later, Marah followed up with the Steve Earle-produced "Kids in Philly" (2000). After that came "Friday Night Gods" (2002) and then 2004's "20,000 Streets Under the Sky."

That album took nine months to record, including several days simply to get the opening of the tremendous "Freedom Park." By contrast, the group recorded "If You Didn't Laugh" practically live in the studio (as well as in bassist Kirk Henderson's apartment) over a few weeks.

"We tried to make ['If You Didn't Laugh'] sound like the band playing together," Serge says, noting that "20,000 Streets" was "nine months of work with a home computer and crappy gear. ... We spent so much time on it, we decided we can't do that and eat up nine months of our lives [again]."

Not bitter

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But recording live requires some adjustments; the give-and-take with an audience can inspire a looseness that may not work in the studio, where precision has come to rule the day.

"We didn't want it to be too tight," says Bielanko. He mentions one artist's recent album in which "you can almost hear the click track [metronomic pacing]. ... That doesn't lend itself to what it's all about."

So "If You Didn't Laugh" is tightly played, but also relaxed: one can hear the hours the band spent sitting around in a circle, working out arrangements. "City of Dreams" shuffles along with a delicate guitar and ethereal Mellotron behind Dave Bielanko's heart-rending vocals ("You ride on the bus, bumping into us/You're reachin' in our pockets, you're bleeding in our cuts"); "The Demon of White Sadness" has the casually slung guitar licks of '70s-era Stones.

The Bielanko brothers, who play guitars and sing, have been the only constants in Marah, which now also consists of Henderson (bass), Dave Peterson (drums) and Adam Garbinski (guitar). "There have been tons of people who have come through the band," says Serge. "It's difficult to make $9,000 a year and be away from home for months on end."

Indeed, the band's name -- pronounced "Ma-RAH" -- translates as "bitter" in Hebrew, and the life of a working band hasn't always been easy. The band has been broke; "Friday Night Gods" was ripped by fans; Dave Bielanko suffered a broken hand in a bar fight. The Bielanko brothers thought of packing it in before "20,000 Streets" came out.

For all that, though, Serge says it's exactly the life he wants.

"We just love to write songs, and we've seen parts of the world we've never been to," he says. "It's like a vision [for] life -- doing something you love for the right reasons."

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