It is easy for me to say that Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania is a great album, but it is a lot harder for me to describe why. It is a strange, unique, and ultimately rewarding listen. It is more of an enigmatic experience than a typical record made of a collection of songs. Although there are some incredible songs on this record, it is a true album in that the sense that the whole is more than just the sum of its parts.
Here at Windup Wire I usually don’t write typical album reviews. Although I have written a couple, I am much more interested in how a piece of work ties into bigger ideas in our culture. Why something is important or not important is much more interesting to me than whether something is good or bad. If you want to know how this record came to be, a rock band that found a bunch of old folk song lyrics and then used their fellow small town citizens to be their back up band, I highly suggest going to www.marah-usa.com and reading about it. It’s a really interesting story and Dave Bielanko, Marah’s lead singer, is a really great writer that will tell this story much more in depth and much more poetically than I could here. The creation of this album is a story unto itself and is worth reading about.
If I was going to compare this album to anything, I would be more likely to compare it to a Werner Herzog movie than any album that comes to mind. It is full of ecstatic truth that is part beauty and part danger. It is full of strong emotions, but because emotions are abstract, it is easier to feel them than to put them into words. This record is infused from top to bottom with mystery.
The first revelation I had while listening to this record is that great art demands to be met on its own terms. That does not necessarily mean that the best of art, or this record, is challenging, although it can be, but that they aren’t asking you to like them, they simply just are. Although there are moments of discord on this record, and this definitely isn’t the middle of the road Americana music that is so in fashion right now, this also isn’t Public Image Limited’s Metal Box. It’s not actively challenging you so much as it is simply going down its own path, unafraid of losing some people along the way if they don’t get it. In fact a moment ago when I hinted that it was an Americana record, this really isn’t true other than in the broadest sense. It does rely heavily on traditional instruments, and because the lyrics come from old folk songs it does have one foot in traditional American roots music, but only one foot. Although there are plenty of things you could say this record is sort of like, it really is truly unique and needs to be met on its own terms.
The first song, The Falling of the Pine, is a perfect example. The first half of the song is traditional folk instruments with a very traditional folk melody. (Although the Jew harp in this part of the song hints at things to come.) About halfway through the song it breaks down. The next thing you know a rock n roll rhythm section comes in and all rules are thrown out the window. And by this I don’t mean that the song continues as is just with bass and drums. I mean that it takes a completely left turn. The past and the present collide in one song.
A thing that is really interesting to me about this record is the way that the past and the present do collide. This is both in the arrangements and the technology that is used to make the record. The record was recorded live in an old church using analog tape and minimum microphones. This gives a great deal of the record a far away dream like quality. Instruments blur together in ways that you are not always one hundred percent sure what you are listening to. However if the recording sound of the record is old, the music is fresh. It makes you feel as if you are viewing our present as the past. It’s almost as if someone from some future age had unearthed a bunch of records that were being made right now, but time had dilapidated them and the person that discovered them was wondering what life must have been like at this time and place.
Marah has three basic characteristics that have defined them to me throughout the years. The first is that they have one of the best rock n roll singers of recent years in Dave Bielanko. Whether they are playing blistering rock music or beautiful folk songs you can always recognize his voice. It has the grittiness and heart of someone like Paul Westerberg, but there is a good deal of inner city grime to it as well. Once you hear it you’ll understand. They have often displayed, again with whatever style they are tackling, a throw everything in including the kitchen sink sense of arrangement. Occasionally they will pair down to a simpler sound, but often there are all kinds of instruments thrown together that one wouldn’t think would belong together. But it always does. Their arrangements are often over stacked, but in a way that is charming. Unlike most modern records where grand arrangements hint at slickness, Marah’s retain a great deal of looseness and feel to them. Banjos, electric guitars, fiddles, a Jew harp, barbershop singers, handclaps, whistles, and much, much more collide on this album. Marah have always created a big atmosphere and this album is no different. The third thing that always defines Marah for me, and the most important outside of Dave’s voice, is the fact that they always, and I mean always, get the rhythm right. Their songs always have the perfect groove for whatever style they are attempting. Even when there are no drums, their songs are deep in the pocket. All of these attributes are present on this record and on many of Marah’s recordings in the past.
There is one thing that is new here for a Marah record. It is the sense of community that this is not just a band record. Dave and Christine Smith, the two members that makeup Marah at this point, are joined by the townspeople of and surrounding Millheim, Pa. The town is their band. 8 year old Gus Tritsch actually sings two of the songs and wrote one of them. This country used to have more regional music. Although that is still true to a degree, technology and mass communications has homogenized music to a much higher degree than in the past. With this album you feel as if you are transported to a specific time and place. A moment in time never to be captured again.
This record is again an album in the truest sense. Although there are some glorious songs on this record, its true strength is in the sum of its parts. (The song Luliana is a stunningly beautiful ballad. I also must say that I was very happy to hear a reference to the Susquehanna River which I grew up near.) Marah have always been great songwriters whether it is Dave and Christine or whether it was Serge Bielanko when he was still in the band. However, there are moments on this album that drift purposefully towards sound and atmosphere. The last song is an instrumental. Some of these moments if taken alone, while still retaining a certain ramshackle charm, gain a weight when listened to in the correct sequence.
If I have any criticism of this record it is merely one of taste. Occasionally I would like to see Dave’s vocals higher in the mix. I understand why the choice was probably made to have the vocals somewhat submerged in the mix. It adds to the sense of mystery that permeates the album. However, Dave really is such a great rock n roll singer that I occasionally want to hear more of him.
This album is strange mutant folk music infused with rock n roll spirit. When 8 year old Gus sings the dread infused Rattlesnake it is more punk rock than any punk rock I’ve heard it years. The hazy mysterious quality of this record may lose a couple of people along the way, but it’s their loss. This record has a truly cinematic quality to it. Again I can’t help but think of Werner Herzog and at times the American surrealism of David Lynch. Yet even that doesn’t scratch the surface. For every moment of weird surrealism there is probably one of straight folk music and another of rock n roll passion. It’s a hell of a thing. If you want to hear something new and go someplace you haven’t been before, give it a go.
Listen to a clip of Ten Cents at the Gate from the album here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWWht8LywOU