Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Lasting Echoes

Two bands--one British, the other American--release enduring rock albums

By Noel Murray

MAY 8, 2000:  Marah's second album closes with the sound of a bus rattling down the road, past the sounds of Spanish-speaking voices and doo-wop music and the distant echo of one of Marah's own songs. The group's first album, Let's Cut the Crap and Hook up Later on Tonight, closed with a hidden track of its own--a raucous, hilarious hootenanny comparing a slacker postgraduate and a Pennsylvania hillbilly who listen to the same college rock station. On both records, it seems, the Philadelphia rock band makes a thesis statement in its closing moments.

Let's Cut the Crap's finale reinforced that record's general feel--more rural than urban. If the first album had Marah on a road trip to the sticks, Kids in Philly has them on a tour of the Philadelphia neighborhoods, traveling on that bus that we hear at album's end. From the opening notes of the first track, "Faraway You," it's clear the band is off in a new direction. The song begins with an alarm blare followed by a rapid-fire banjo riff, over which lead singer Dave Bielanko lets fly with a breathless tumble of words. It's the first of many moments on the album that recall both The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street and Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle.

In fact, Kids in Philly is in the great rock 'n' roll tradition of "city albums," and like its predecessors, it seems equally influenced by old-school rock, Latin rhythms, and sweet soul. The backing "doo-doo-doo"s, the pumping horns, and the lyrical references to Van Morrison and Little Richard speak to Marah's newfound need to connect the dots of rock 'n' roll history and to acknowledge their home city's place in the big picture.

Which brings up the other new weapon in Marah's arsenal: the lyrics. Dave Bielanko and his brother Serge wrote some sharp songs for the first record, but nothing compared to the brash and colorful stories that make Kids in Philly so damned exciting. "Faraway You" is one of several songs that overwhelm the listener with descriptions of people and objects on the Philadelphia streets.

But the two Bielankos aren't just writing a love letter to the wonders of their hometown; they start macro and work micro, letting their candid snapshots set the scene for tales of lovers torn apart, junkies who gather under bridges, and crimes of convenience. Short, jaunty pop songs like "Point Breeze" and "My Heart Is the Bums on the Street" represent the musical spirit of Kids in Philly, but the album's masterpiece is "Round Eye Blues"--a Vietnam flashback that hooks the passion of Motown and Phil Spector to the inner-city youths who died in the jungle. A close second is "It's Only Money, Tyrone," in which a murdered woman floats to the surface of the river with all the other garbage that "someday...comes back."

That last line may remind some of Springsteen's "Atlantic City," and intentionally or not, all the flurry of imagery and pan-ethnic rock on Kids in Philly is decidedly Springsteen-ish--right down to the ringing bells that adorn a few songs. Even the band's Web site gets into the act: Where The Boss was once "the future of rock 'n' roll," Marah's promotional material claims them as "The Last Rock 'n' Roll Band." If that's true, then the tightly packed, intensely focused, almost impossibly thrilling Kids in Philly must be the last rock 'n' roll album.

Wow...what a way to go.

Beyond expectation

The history of Britpop is littered with bands who changed their sound to capitalize on whatever trend seemed the hottest. Primal Scream was a hard-rock band before they converted to the Manchester acid-dance sound (and scored a huge hit). Underworld was a techno-pop band before discovering trance-electronica, and Blur had been everything from folky to glam to dancehall before its recent, belated jump to grunge. Few bands, though, have switched allegiances as fast as the Glasgow-born, London-based Travis, whose first album was full of brassy arena rock. They've now followed that with a quiet, stately album that not only recalls Radiohead, but even uses the same producer (Nigel Godrich) who helmed Radiohead's much-revered OK Computer.

Not only that, but there's a bit of Pulp in the band's slowest numbers and some Oasis-like bite to the guitar solos. Combine that with the generic-sounding band name--what is it with the "Cool Brittania" set and their addiction to short, one-word monikers?--and you've got a recipe for instant oblivion.

But a strange thing happens with Travis' The Man Who. There's something haunting around the edges of the band's sound--something that compels the listener to keep checking out the album rather than quickly writing it off. What is this elusive quality? Well, bandleader Fran Healy's songs are often quite pretty, and catchy in the most straightforward way. Some are sublime, like the wistful "The Fear," the yearning "As You Are," the bright "Driftwood," and the three hidden tracks ("Blue Flashing Light," "20," and "Molly"), which have a more traditional sing-along quality. Others, like "Luv" and the overseas hit "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?," are too plodding for even producer Godrich to save.

But Godrich squeezes every drop of value out of most of these songs, giving shadow and drama to the simplest melodies. Guitars chime here and echo there, and Healy's vocals drop low in the mix precisely at the point when their sing-songiness would be most grating. The singer has an indistinct voice, but he wields it a lot better than his contemporaries in Oasis, Blur, or Radiohead--at the least, Healy doesn't let all his reverberation gather in his nose.

So what does ultimately redeem The Man Who? It might be Healy's lyrics--so witty, direct, and full of the morose self-centeredness at which royal subjects seem to excel. Or it might be the way that guitarist Andy Dunlop's riffs have such an elegant, understated swoop, so unlike the fussiness of other big British rock bands. Or maybe it's the combination of these things, goosed by Godrich into sounding more timeless than it should. The band and its producer have stolen those parts of modern Britpop that were previously stolen from The Beatles, David Bowie, Genesis, and Simple Minds--sounds that best describe the rain-softened soul of the U.K., reverberating off the green-and-gray color scheme of their homeland's literal and emotional landscape.

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