Life Is a Problem
Valley Farm Songs
By Al Kaufman
Marah like to market themselves as “The Last Rock N’ Roll Band.” While clearly not true, it is easy to see why they would feel that way. Rock music is about attitude (an attitude that may include boasting that you’re the last rock band in the world). It’s about playing with passion and emotion, instead of technical savvy. It’s about laying it out there rather than having a studio whiz clean it all up and make it nice and shiny.
If that is our definition of rock music, then Marah is certainly at least one of the last bands around that fits the description. On their eighth CD, Life Is a Problem, Marah delivers sloppy, swampy rock and roll in which the chords ooze out of the speakers. David Bielanko and Christine Smith, along with their ragtag band of accomplices, held nothing back. They recorded the CD in a old farmhouse in Amish country using whatever instruments they could find while dumpster diving and flea market shopping (“Valley Farm Song” opens with a bicycle horn and goes out with bagpipes). But the end result is not a jug band sound in which members all share a total of six teeth. No, Life Is a Problem is a rock and roll album. Of that there can be no doubt. It is the kind of rock and roll that has made everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Stephen King fans over the years. It’s rock and roll that’s played from the gut and the heart, not the pocketbook.
That said, Life Is a Problem does not rock as hard as some previous Marah releases. It has a more organic sound to it. They still let it all out on cuts like “Muskie Moon” and the surprisingly upbeat “Put ’em in a Graveyard,” (essentially about packing up your troubles in an old kit bag), but much of the rest of the CD is a bit more contemplative. “Within the Spirit Sagging,” a goodbye song, has a Crosby, Stills and Nash kind of beauty to it, while “Together Not Together,” with its dreamy qualities, captures the enduring theme of the CD. Yes, life may very well be a problem, but there are joys to seek seek out, and reasons to continue the struggle.
The CD closes with their cover of the traditional “Bright Morning Stars,” recalling Americana godfathers Uncle Tupelo. However, just in case one were to think that Marah had gone soft, they include a ragged mess of a bonus track that would make the early Rolling Stones proud. It’s priceless stuff that Marah just tagged on at the end because, well, they felt like it. And when you’re the last rock and roll band on Earth, you do whatever the hell you feel like doing.