MARAH

"20,000 Streets Under the Sky"

Phidelity/Yep Roc

JAKE BRENNAN & THE CONFIDENCE MEN

"Love & Bombs"

Yep Roc

Like many another "critics' band," Marah got tired of being "empty-pocket famous," as the group put it on a new song. So in 2001, brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko decamped from Philadelphia to Wales, where they made a big-gesture, arena-rock album with producer Owen Morris (Oasis, the Verve). That album, 2002's "Float Away With the Friday Night Gods," was pretty good, as these things go, but it lacked the sharp originality of the first two Marah records and didn't sell any better. So the Bielanko brothers limped back to their home town, assembled a new band, returned to their old habits of garage-rock experimentation and made the best album of their careers, "20,000 Streets Under the Sky."

"Float Away" featured a vocal cameo by Bruce Springsteen, but "20,000 Streets" comes much closer to the Boss's spirit; it boasts the word-drunk poetry, borrowed rock 'n' roll history and street-corner twitchiness of Springsteen's first three albums. You can hear it on "Freedom Park," where Dave sings Serge's lyrics about standing on Philadelphia streets amid the broken bottles and empty drug bags as he watches airplanes "sliding by us cool and dark like tiny silver fish." Meanwhile, the band plays like the Faces and sings like Little Anthony & the Imperials.

Whether it's the male prostitute in "Feather Boa," the career-stalled musician on "Goin' Thru the Motions," the interracial lovers in "Soda" or the bedraggled city bird in "Pigeon Heart," the characters in all these songs try to bridge the gap between disappointing reality and elusive hopes with words and music that are gritty enough for the one and evocative enough for the other.

On "Love & Bombs," the first full album under his own name, Jake Brennan combines the punk-rock attack of his former band Cast Iron Hike with the roots-rock songwriting chops of his underrated dad, Dennis Brennan. The result is a combination of raspy, bantam-rooster crowing, heart-on-the-sleeve confessions and boozy looseness that recalls the early Rod Stewart.

Like Stewart, Brennan even uses mandolin and pedal steel to balance out the swaggering rock 'n' roll guitars on songs as memorable as "Believe Me" or "In My Stepdad's Car." The CD's first pressing comes with "Singer-Songriot," a superfluous DVD documentary about how producer Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, Pixies) recorded dozens of songs and arrangements before picking the 13 keepers; the results are far more impressive than the process.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Friday at Iota. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Marah, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8129; to hear Jake Brennan, press 8130. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)