Recently after a night out I found myself in a friend's house at 2am. It was raining heavily so I had time to kill before making the trip home. While the storm clouds gathered and the coffee kicked in, I stuck on my copy of Marah's new album, 'Kids In Philly', as a late night sign off. The two of us listened from start to finish, wrapped up and warm in the band's starry widescreen ways and emotional tales of urban love and living. As the last chords of album closer 'This Town' drifted away, my friend exhaled with a quizzical look. "Great," he said, "and this is a reissue from a 70's band?" And I smiled because I knew that Marah singer Dave Bielanko had just found another convert to his cause.
Dave Bielanko is 26, his band Marah (a Biblical word for 'bitter') are only three-years-old but already they've earned the title of 'the last rock 'n' roll band'. Listen to 'Kids...' and you'll hear why: it's their fiery quest to put the glory back into the artform, to create an album which could hold its own in any era and to save a generation from the charts and give them some appreciation of history and heroes. A masterpiece of grand rusty narratives and timeless tunes, it has far more in common with the bands Bielanko grew up listening to in Philadelphia (The Rolling Stones, The Faces, Bruce Springsteen) than any record from the last 10-15 years.
It is also a record in love with the city of its title. Over a delicious, unfussy mix of rock, country and soul inspiration, Bielanko wanders from day to daze around his hometown, seeing his love cheating from the window of a bus ('Faraway You'), going fishing in the wrong part of town ('The Catfisherman'), comparing the state of his affections to the reality of his surroundings ('My Heart Is The Bum On The Streets') and then soaking his troubles in corner bars ('Point Breeze').
"Philly is the last unhomogenised East Coast city," he explains. "It never really seems to change and it probably feels the same today as it did in 1960. It's called the city of neigbourhoods: it's all row homes, Italian restaurants, good people and bad people and crime and fun - just like the album. With 'Kids In Philly' we didn't want to make a concept album, we wanted to make a storybook, a big city rock 'n' roll record."
Marah (completed by Bielanko's guitarist brother Serge, bassist Danny Metz and drummer Ronnie Vance) succeeded on both counts - and on very modest means. While now on the E2/Artemis roster in the US and Sony in Europe, the band made the record before they signed. And despite the presence of a brass section and an army of banjos, it was actually recorded in their rehearsal room.
"There are so many records today that are really good records but sound sort of empty or soulless," he reflects. "This record was made in the upstairs loft of a garage, Frank's Auto Repairs, in South Philadelphia. It was made on a one inch eight track machine - very primitive today in the world of technology. But we needed that isolation, that sort of outsider angle to make the record. I don't think we could have made it in a nice studio in New York city; it would just be a different feeling."
That asecetic aesthetic has won Marah praise from critics on both sides of the pond, tours with The Who and The Black Crowes and the nod of approval from idol Bruce Springsteen who sang with them onstage in New Jersey. But Bielanko brushes off the accolades with a disarming modesty because, for him, what matters more is reaching the kid stuck in some little town with just music videos for company.
"There aren't a lot of twelve-year-old kids with one of our records," he sighs sadly. "The people who come support us love The Replacements or The E Street Band or are too like the characters in the book 'High Fidelity'. But we're out to reach as many people as we can. Some bands are into shooting themselves in the foot and don't want to succeed but that's never been our idea. I want to play for people and have them enjoy the record."
But unlike the bands Bielanko grew up listening to, record companies' attention spans are much shorter now. Career builds like that of Springsteen are a rarity and artists have to roll their vision into a shorter time frame. "That guy John Hammond at Columbia Records was a genius," he says excitedly. "He had Aretha Franklin put out five records before she sold ten copies of them and he did the same thing with Bruce Springsteen. I know that doesn't happen anymore, but I also know that things come around and go around and I think that rock 'n' roll will be the music of the day very shortly again. To play your little part is all you can do."
So no worries about the label looking at their watches? "That's the atmosphere but I don't think they're going to sell us out quite yet." He laughs. "If they do, I'm going to go to New York and kill them." Write them off at your cost.
'Kids In Philly' is out now on E2/Artemis and Sony