There are albums that grow on you, there are albums that require repeated listenings to fully reveal themselves to you, and then there are albums you find yourself needing to listen to every day because the songs sink into your skin and make you feel like you’ve known them forever. 20,000 Streets Under The Sky by Marah is one of the latter.
Once upon a time, artists could grow and experiment and fall down and get back up and their audience would just go along for the ride, getting on or off as their needs or patience or outlook changed. Unfortunately, Marah was originally embraced by one of the most unforgiving bodies of fans on the planet, the alt.country crowd; put a banjo on a record album and you’re expected to follow the same identical path forever – departure from the narrow pathway is viewed as nothing less than betrayal.
Marah took a hit with their sophomore label release, Float Away With The Friday Night Gods, which was, admittedly, a drastic departure in sound and production from Kids In Philly, the album that brought them to everyone’s attention (and deservedly so). When Float Away not only didn’t attract a new audience, but also alienated the old crowd, the band took a step back, regrouped, and holed up in their South Philly rehearsal space to put together 20,000 Streets Under The Sky. To call it a “comeback” record would be doing it a grave injustice, as it is a powerful piece of work, period, that any band would be proud to release.
As one of the few bands remaining on the planet with any sense of place, “East” is a yearning ode to the City of Brotherly Love. “Freedom Park,” complete with girl doo-wop trio the Shalitas shimmy-shimmy-coco-bopping in the background, brings us into downtown Philly proper. “Feather Boa” is another streetscene, while “Sure Thing” is a love song, right and proper. “Soda,” “Pizzeria” and “Body” form an urban trilogy that read like headlines out of any newspaper in any city – even though “Soda” would be a better short story than song. To an objective listener, it’s not a perfect album, but perfection in rock and roll is highly overrated – give me emotion and feel over some idealized notion of musical perfection any day. There’s an earnestness to this band that turns a lot of people off, but is probably their most redeeming quality.
The production veers from lush and layered to sheer sonic reduction, rocking out. Philly soul and country funk, rock and pop, and yes, even a banjo reappears (notably in the bouncy, rollicking “Pigeon Heart”). The biggest problem (if you can call it that) is that Marah has become such a live powerhouse that their albums will probably never do them justice; on the other hand, one could say that the live show will never showcase the music adequately, as the studio allows the band to develop the songs larger and further than they could manage onstage. On the other hand, they’re a band that can take a song and strip it down to nuts and bolts onstage, completely transforming it. In any event, 20,000 Streets is more than a step in the right direction, it’s a stake in the ground that will hopefully move Marah onward and upward toward the attention and the audience they richly deserve.