Life Is a Problem on Valley Farm Songs
If Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character (circa the first ten minutes of 1921’s The Kid) was in an American rock and roll band, then or now, the results would more than likely sound very much like Marah’s new album Life Is a Problem. At first listen, it sounds adventurously experimental and off-the-cuff, much like the Chaplin character. Yet, underneath what appears easy, there lies a depth of beauty and heartache. There is not a standout single in sight on Life Is a Problem, no immediately approachable tunes with which past classics like Kids in Philly, If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry, or Angels of Destruction were loaded. After about four or five spins, a couple of songs really stand out as being tender and beautiful, but it’s still unclear exactly what’s going on; the atmosphere is sad and uplifting at the same time. Finally, after the record plays through about ten times, everything becomes comprehensible. This is not the same band that recorded those classic albums. This isn’t even the same band that toured small clubs and dives last year. The spirit is the same, but it now walks and talks in a new body. The body has been beat and bruised, cursed at and sued, and it has bled. Yet, it still gets up and walks just to let everybody and everything around it know that it still can. This is the heart, the soul of music. It’s not about genres like rock and roll, or gospel, or blues, or bluegrass, or ragtime; it’s just music.
Life Is a Problem is a testament to this creed. Many bands play music, in many different forms, for many different reasons. Some for money, others for fame, and some even for ego. In its purest form, music is made as a vehicle for healing and inspiration, of which songs like “Within the Spirit Sagging” and “Together Not Together” are perfect molds. Yearning, angst, and uncertainness plague the beauty-at-first-glance themes of the compositions. Piece by piece, the songs are hopeless allusions, but the sum of their parts is inspirational to the utmost extreme. Elsewhere, “Valley Farm Song” starts out with a bicycle horn and a frightening hip-hop beat before exploding into a buoyant celebration of acoustic guitar, drums, shakers, and even bagpipes. Yet underneath, the hunger and desire are constant, as they are in the tender ode of “High Water” and the folk-horror imagery of “Put ‘Em In the Graveyard.” The title track is built with surging guitars against a wall of percussion and bass and glockenspiel, and leader Dave Bielanko’s heaving vocals come extremely close to exuding the type of urgency with which a young Bruce Springsteen infused his early work.
“Within the Spirit Sagging,” with its diamond-edged harmonies provided by Bielanko and Christine Smith, is perhaps the masterpiece. It is the greatest ballad of imagery the band has ever recorded. Yet if this song had not made the cut on this album, “Tramp Art” would be the final statement here. Taking the concept of desire and survival to the extreme, Marah becomes a band of bums, playing music in the run-down wherever at the edge of town, spitting imagery and paradox and empty philosophies to the wind, using anything lying around as an instrument to do it.
As a whole, Life Is a Problem is a concept of just that. It is the sound of a band trying to look ahead and reclaim the meaning of why they make music. After their last record, Angels of Destruction, most of the band dissolved. Dave Bielanko’s brother and songwriting partner Serge then left for an extended absence to raise a family, leaving Dave and Christine Smith with the reigns. Despite Serge’s absence, he was obviously a huge part of this new album (old tapes of his voice can be heard at points throughout). Without him, this record almost feels like the debut of a new band, but there are too many ghosts housed here for that to be completely true (which is meant both figuratively and literally, as most of this was recorded and conceived in an abandoned haunted farmhouse in Pennsylvania).
Figuratively, the work is framed with parallels of the past and the future. “Muskie Moon” is a reworked leftover from the sessions of the band’s first album, Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later On Tonight. It is a celebration and a bittersweet remembrance of the band’s origins. “Bright Morning Stars” is a traditional song done in front-porch jamboree style. It is the only song on the album that’s not an original composition, suggesting that no one can actually write their future. “Day is breaking in my soul,” Bielanko sings; the nightmare is over, and the horizon ahead looks promising.
It certainly does.
Grade: A +
Click here to buy the gatefold vinyl or cassette of Life Is a Problem