Waxed: Marah's If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry
A few years back, I got myself into this interesting little relationship with a girl from Pittsburgh that ended up being not so little. One of the best things about this tryst was her passion for music. Even though we didn’t have the exact same tastes, her passion for music was the closest I have ever seen anyone come to my own.
It was a good deal for building a relationship. We made each other mixtapes like crazy, and it became a big game to find something new, special, and mind-blowing to show to the other person. Released on October 18th, 2005, Marah’s If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry was one such album I discovered on this quest for finding the perfect songs to share with my lover.
I reviewed it in February 2006 on my Xanga blog, now just a repository of old memories. We had just seen the band in concert, and the two of us were incredibly blown away. It was in this really quiet, small townie bar in Columbus, Ohio. Fuck if it wasn’t the loudest show I have ever been to, maybe outside of Sunny Day Real Estate. I always felt bad about this show; confession: we sat in chairs for most of the show. By we, I mean most of the entire audience, us included. The bad grew visibly annoyed throughout the set until, towards the end of their performance, they broke down, and pretty much walked off the stage and started pulling people up, motioning along the small bar floor for us all to stand. We obliged (we being her and I) and a few more people did as well, and they returned and finished their set. It’s a sad story to relate – my gal and I had been walking all day, and that’s our best excuse – because they seriously rocked hard. I mean, HARD.
Anyway, I reviewed If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry in February 2006, and compared it to some of the greatest rock and roll albums ever: Exile On Main Street, The White Album, and Highway 61 Revisited. Here, damn near two and half years later and three years after its release, I can say with some meager authority that this blog and my history as a rock and roll, uh, historian, that this album deserves to be placed alongside those bastions of the rock pantheon. It’s an old dinosaur of an album, in all of the best ways.
The album has this little theme running through it – a little musical interlude that opens and “closes” the album (that is, besides the hidden track that really closes the album). It also blossoms into it’s own song, “Sooner or Later,” which is what I call the theme – the “Sooner or Later theme,” which I will now paraphrase from now on out at the “SoLt.” It is one of the most catchy pieces of music you’ll ever hear, and it is even sweeter in its song form.
There has always been something about this album that resonates with me. This is a heart album, a chest album – full of emotion and feeling. It is, for me, forever linked to that period of my life, that of the interesting little relationship that wasn’t so little. Maybe that’s why I put it on such a high pedestal. Honestly, I have played the album for several other people, including people who I think know their way around music, and I am always astonished when they don’t proclaim it the best fucking thing they’ve heard in years (or even months or weeks). I view it as nothing short of spectacular.
“So What if We’re Outta Tune (W/The Rest of the World)” was one of those tunes that made it on one of those mix CDs. With lines like, “ooh, lover, I only sing for you,” I found it wonderfully romantic. And, it is. It’s one of those “we’re all alone but we’re together” type of songs. Musically, it pairs a sweet finger-picked guitar with a gentle banjo, and adds little flourishes here and there, like finger snaps and swelling background vocals.
But I digress. The album kicks off with the “SoLt,” then kicks into high gear with “The Closer.” Yes, I do consider it pure genius to name the opening song on your album “The Closer,” but this track is more than just a name. And yes, I do mean kicks into high gear. Frantic guitar and drums meet spit-fire vocals and silly nonsensical lyrics. You immediately are infected with… fun. “Barbeque chips like me, I spot the jelly inside your Crispy Crème!” and “Put a Mississippi pickle in your Brooklyn Buns for free, says me!” are just some of the fun lyrics in the song, which also includes a phone call conversation, between David Bielanko and someone – does it matter who it is? This song is simply infectious, and rocks hard.
The feeling of fun continues on “The Hustle,” the second track. It continues the loud, brash, bar-band assault of the opener, ending in an angular, melodic slash-n-burn guitar solo that – no joke – turns into a disco rave up. As the bass pounds out the 2 a.m. plus dance beats, the guitar continues its caterwaul and crawls to a jolting thump. The song also illustrates David’s street-wise poet lyrics. “I heard a rumor that time, is really just a light in a box in your mind,” he sings, and I’m not sure what the means, but damn I want it. His alternately sung/spit/shouted vocal delivery carries each tune, even as the music gets catchier and catchier. His voice is the thread that sews it all up, though the music contributions of Serge Bielanko (Dave’s brother, who also plays guitar, sings, writes, and plays multiple other instruments), guitarist Adam Garbinski, drummer Dave Peterson, and bass-man/keyboardist Kirk Henderson can not be understated.
The album really begins to represent itself, though, on the third track, “City of Dreams.” Not much on this album brings to mind summer. It, to me, is a squarely fall/winter album. Again, this perception may be wrapped up in my own wintry biography surrounding the album, but objectivity be damned; this is a winter album. “City of Dreams” is light, almost jaunty, and uplifting. It always reminds me of walking in Columbus, with my girl, bundled up and holding hands, walking from downtown into the section nearby the university. Perhaps that’s why the wintery feel of this album begins with this song. “City of dreams, you don’t know what it means… to only dream about it, I know, I know…” It may not mean much at first, but this song, like so many on this album, pulls at the heartstrings, and again, as elsewhere, the interplay of the music, vocals, and lyrics on “City of Dreams” is perfectly complimentary.
It doesn’t end there, that wintery feel, but it goes on the back-burner for another barn-burner of a song: “Fat Boy.” This song is akin to the first two. Reckless fun and silliness ensue, along with some tasty slide guitar and hand claps. There sound’s like there’s some harmonica going to town in there, too. It feels like you’ve stumbled into the greatest bar party ever. Opening with a request to cut the current noise the band is making and a 1-2-3 count-off, and ending with a wonderful rave-up, crash-landing-type ending, the song fits neatly within the fun and joyous spirit of the album. Which may be better described as musical salvation. Some music makes you happy, some sad, some sorrowful and depressed, and others angry. This album, as a whole, is the kind of save-your-soul rock and roll that bands only dream about writing and playing. The emotions contained are myriad, but overall the hopeful feel of the entire album lends it this messianic quality.
The listener is next greeted with “Sooner or Later,” big brother to the “SoLt,” an another acoustic song. “Don’t expect much these days buddy, a couple of beers and life is so funny,” singer Dave Bielanko sings. “You’ll be coming back sooner or later, and we’ll be waiting for you.” The stick drumming, slide guitar, hoots and hollers throughout the tune add to its already considerable charm. It sounds like something that old friends and bandmates would play on a tour bus late at night, or at someone’s place after the show – the places where drunken fun and honest music just ooze out. It is also roots music at its finest. Marah is one of those all-American bands, whose music encompasses a wide variety of influences and tends to get labeled as Americana or Roots Rock or even Alternative Country.
That brings us back to “So What If We’re Outta Tune,” where something magical happens. When compact discs were invented, someone figured out you could put sound on the album in negative seconds. The trend tended to die off quickly I though. But Marah resurrects it here, before this song, to embedded a pump/church organ piece that introduces “So What…” quite well. Again, not enough can be said about this song. It serves as the middle of the album, and as the centerpiece as well. That feeling of being hard-up, but at least you have your sweetheart, and the continued feeling of it being a lonely, cold song, vividly bring to mind winter.
“The Demon of White Sadness” begins with another one of those “hidden track,” negative seconds pieces – this time a harmony-vocal chorus piece. It’s striking and a great addition to the most lyrically tough songs on the album. The “demon” sounds like a drug dealer at first, and maybe later the drugs themselves. The song lends Dave’s lyrics a wonderful romanticism that can only be understood by those having either been addicted to a drug themselves, or to the family of those who have been through it. The music, while not acoustic, still has that wistful winter sound, and that’s part of what lends the song its romantic vibe. Great piano throughout the track, too.
Serge makes his singing debut on the album with “The Dishwasher’s Dream.” “Dream” is squarely in the Dylan singer-songwriter tradition, with chugging, driving acoustic guitars, rollicking piano, brushed drums and harmonica, and lyrics that tell a story about, well, a dishwasher and a nightmare he and his lover share. “I recall to a time when hope was our friend, instead of this bitch that we hate,” Serge sings as the Dishwasher, speaking to his love. The song is quite descriptive. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it, crossing the border from West Virginia into Pennsylvania, in the middle of a snow-storm, as I drove out to see my baby. Again, the personal connect to winter exists for me because of all the little anecdotal stories that I remember when listening to If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry, but the current of sad hope that this album floats on is too close to comfort to not feel like the cycle of death and rebirth that takes hold in winter.
“We should not be living this life like this,” Dave bellows in “Poor People,” another street-poet story, an increasingly poignant one. The current economic crisis makes this song ring truer than ever before. The bad ass music – a return to the jovial bar band noise of earlier tunes on the album – picks you up and begins the comfortable, cycle towards then end of this magnificent album, the lead guitar licks becoming cyclical themselves. The little jam at the end of the song adds to the friendly, in-on-the-secret-of-the-best-barband-in-town-sound of the whole record.
If you needed any more proof that this is a winter album, the largest nail in that coffin comes in the next tract, “Walt Whitman Bridge,” a personal favorite track that always picks me up. Despite the hard luck situation of the song’s protagonist, there’s a sincere hope when Dave sings, “Far away from these winter streets, on a cloudless day, your memory blows away from me.” Talk of coffee and cigarettes are just some of the graphic detail of life for the down-and-out character. The band magnificent weaves a tapestry around Dave’s voice and acoustic guitar, with piano, steel guitar, and cascading electric guitar adding substance to another perfect storytelling song. This is a song you should really listen to, over and over, to soak up every little nuance, because they are all perfect and perfectly wonderful.
Now, if you needed even more proof that this is a winter album, AND a story-tellers album, “The Apartment” should put all the women and children to bed for you. Case closed. A road song that could only be written by a musician on tour, missing his lover, “The Apartment” is heartbreaking in its sadness and amazing warm in its heartfelt love. Not to mention those bad ass mariachi horns! “I hear your name in the pumping of gas,” Serge sings (this being his second, and last, lead vocal spot on the album). “Tonight I just want to come back to our apartment in the city.” More of the rootsy instrumentation makes this tune shine. If you’re not a fan of this band by the end of this album, you must be a musical idiot, because there aren’t many bands left, American or otherwise, who can cover so much musical and emotional territory as this band.
The album ends with “The End,” appropriately, which at first seems like it’s just a return to the “SoLt.” That in and of itself would’ve been a fine end to this amazing album, but it isn’t the end. A few seconds after it fades out, the closing song creeps in, pumping guitar and volume swells. The lyrics are my favorite from the album… hell, the whole song is my favorite thing about this album. It combines everything perfectly. This song will get you all worked up. “Maybe its this time, when we’ll make somebody smile,” and “Ever since I saw your face, I have been a star in space, shining down on your street.” It’s so perfect… the brilliant lead guitar work, the harmony vocals, the driving rhythm section. Fuck. This band breaks my heart. And it breaks my heart that you aren’t listening to them. So go buy this album – right now. Put it on, in your car or at home with a glass of red wine or a nice heavy beer, smoke a cigarette, and relive every great romantic and meaningful moment of your life.
Yeah, they’re kind of like that.
PS – if you need more proof, damnit, go read Heather’s excellent post about these guys, over on the I Am Fuel, You Are Friends music blog. She’s smart and knows her shit (aside from the occasional Wilco hiccup, but I will forgive that because, you know, the blatant Pearl Jam worship) and has lead me to so much wonderful music in the past few years. If I can’t set you straight on Marah with a 2,500 word count review of If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry, well, maybe you’ll listen to her.
Marah post from January 2006
I Am Fuel, You Are Friends general site