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Friday, May 6, 2016

New lineup produces middling results on Marah's latest

Thursday, July 1, 2010

After more than 10 years as the darlings of both critics and a rabid fanbase (including the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Stephen King and Nick Hornby), Philadelphia roots rockers Marah faced some serious question marks after the release of 2008's "Angels of Destruction!"

While the album was up to par with previous efforts, band members Adam Garbinski, Kirk Henderson and Dave Petersen left the band shortly after its released. Longtime member Serge Bielanko also departed, although his split was amicable.

This left the band with some uncertainty as the new record approached. However, frontman Dave Bielanko has stayed a constant, and has been able to juggle a new lineup into producing "Life is a Problem," released June 22 on the Marah's own Valley Farm Songs label.

Has adversity affected the quality of the music? We can only emerge from listening to this album with a solid, "maybe."

Upon first listen, the record is similar to previous releases. It retains that rootsy, ramshackle charm that has been delighting audiences for so long.

Bielanko's vocals are the great equalizer here. As always, he takes turns sounding absolutely heartbroken and completely amused. 2005's release was titled "If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry," and these seem to be the only two options when Bielanko is singing.

A great example of this range comes in "Valley Farm Song," perhaps the most fun song on the album, followed by the melancholy "Within the Spirit Sagging." The songs are a study in contrast, and are perhaps the two strongest on the record.

But the record is missing something, and it doesn't seem to be members. While such a drastic change in lineup will certainly affect a band, this outfit is no stranger to change. Since forming in 1993, Marah has seen 16 members come and go, with Bielanko as the only constant.

Musically, this record is consistent with old releases.

Instead, the group of songs just isnt' up to par. It's almost as if Bielanko and Co. have released a record of B-sides. The music is OK, but nothing really pops out at the listener. "Valley Farm Song," "Within the Spirit Sagging" and "Put 'em in the Graveyard" are the album's strongest moments, but they don't hold a candle to previous tracks like "So What if We're Outta Tune" and "The Hustle," the high points of "If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry."

My spin: C

Detractors from "Life is a Problem" will be quick to blame the lineup change, but the problem seems to lie elsewhere. It could just be that Marah has had an off record. It is their 10th full-length release, and even a good band strikes out sometimes.

One of the most interesting facts about this record is its method of release. It's already out as a digital download, and will be available on vinyl and cassette (that's not a missprint) on July 13. However, there will be no CD release.

Fans may ask why, but anyone who's followed the band for long should ask, "Why not?" Bielanko's never been one for conventional thinking, so why start now?

The big questions now are, how will these songs sound live and what will the next record bring?