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Self-effacing yet assured; flawed yet memorable

Marah -- IYDLYC.jpg

Marah, a band always long on critical acclaim yet lacking mass appeal, ventured toward commercial success with the polished power-pop sounds of its third album and mellow narratives of its fourth.

It never materialized.

On its most recent release, If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry (Yep Roc), the folk-punk band from Philadelphia abandons its chase and embraces its place in the shadows. The result is a memorable album rich with catchy hooks, troubled characters and garage-band fervor.

Defiantly, brothers Serge and Dave Bielanko declare “So What If We’re Out of Tune (With The Rest of the World)” on a gentle ballad that stakes out Marah’s kiss-my-ass position on mainstream music. “Fat Boy” gives a nod to the perils of pursuing popularity, and on “The Demons of White Sadness,” Dave Bielanko croons “fallin’ out of favor was my favorite thing.”

Few bands could dress a self-effacing look at their recent history in such a rollicking disc. No longer pressured by commercial influences, it’s clear Marah now feels comfortable in its own skin.
Although the prominence of the banjo may remind fans of the band’s early albums, IYDLYC does not tread on covered territory. The group’s beloved hometown is never far in the distance. But the more mature, deeply personal thoughts expressed could be occurring anywhere.

Inevitably, the jangly “The Dishwasher’s Dream” will draw comparisons to Bob Dylan, just as the melancholy “Walt Whitman Bridge” will rekindle Bruce Springsteen in some corners. But this is not about channeling their influences; it’s about the band letting loose and being satisfied with itself.

It is by no means a perfect album, but that’s sort of the point.

The band recorded no more than three takes of any song. After carefully cultivating its music for so long, it’s an approach that captures Marah in all its unvarnished glory.

— By Pete Bigelow