Album review: "Life Is a Problem"
To judge from the sparest songs on "Life Is a Problem," Marah has jettisoned nearly everything of its earlier self. Such old-timey ditties as "Bright Morning Stars" discard the sweeping alt-rock of the Philadelphia-rooted band's most heralded album, 2000's "Kids in Philly."
With co-founder Serge Bielanko (a new father) on sabbatical, the group is currently his brother, Dave Bielanko, and multi-instrumentalist Christine Smith. (Three other musicians join them onstage.) Recorded with banjo, fiddle and honky-tonk piano in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania's Amish country, "Life Is a Problem" is rough-edged folk-rock in the mode of Bob Dylan's "The Basement Tapes." Even the format is something of a throwback: Available digitally now, the album will be released July 13 on vinyl and cassette -- but not CD.
Despite the hillbilly and country-blues influences, Marah's new music is not altogether rustic. Bielanko's instruments are decidedly plugged-in on such tunes as "Tramp Art," which matches plinking banjo to squawking guitar, and "Together Not Together" goes cosmopolitan with a string section. The album's highlight, "Put 'em in the Graveyard," finds an cogent balance: The song has a down-home twang, but also a rollicking spirit that kids in Philly should have no trouble understanding.