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Keeping it Together

Marah and the Hold Steady add a harder, not as hopeful edge to Bruce Springsteen's working-class angst

Hannah Toresson
Life--and a sensible haircut--is a problem for Marah.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 6/30/2010

Journalists are always pointing out the Springsteen influence in Marah and the Hold Steady: the guitar rave-up anthems rooted in '60s rock 'n' roll, the brooding ballads of working-class angst, the blue-collar characters described in colorful cascades of literary detail. Far from running away from such comparisons, as more insecure musicians would, Marah's Dave and Serge Bielanko and Hold Steady's Craig Finn have embraced them. On YouTube, you can watch the Bielankos singing "Raise Your Hand" with Springsteen at Giants Stadium in 2003 and Finn singing "Rosalita" with the Boss at Carnegie Hall in 2007. And yet, as you listen to the new albums, Marah's Life Is a Problem and Hold Steady's Heaven Is Whenever, you're struck by the ways the two bands differ from their role model. They are the bastard sons of Bruce, fathered by Springsteen's abiding romanticism but mothered by the drunken garage-rock and deep-seated skepticism of the Replacements and early Elvis Costello.

If Life Is a Problem, as the title declares, Springsteen has always believed that there's a solution, but Finn and the Bielankos aren't so sure. Springsteen's characters are always getting knocked down--by closed-down factories, by uncaring governments, by snobbish girls and bad husbands--but they always pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and keep striving for something better. The characters in Marah and Hold Steady songs also find themselves on the floor, but not always because someone put them there; just as often they've gotten themselves drunk and fallen down. This variable--hedonistic self-destruction--makes these characters less heroic than Springsteen's, but probably more realistic. And that changes the tone of the songs, making the hopes more brittle, the narratives more fractured, and the pessimism more pervasive.

It changes not just the lyrics, but the music too. The black influence is reduced (there's much less gospel/soul testifying and fewer harmonic payoffs in the choruses), and the punk influence is increased (there's much more staccato rhythms, unresolved chord changes, and shouting). Finn and the Bielankos are not punks--they love melody and storytelling too much--but they are suspicious of happy endings.

The Marah MySpace page explains that Serge Bielanko is on paternity leave, and his younger brother Dave has formed a new songwriting partnership with Christine Smith, the band's keyboardist since 2005. The couple wrote 10 of the 11 songs on Problem, though Dave takes all the lead vocals. He hasn't lost his knack for the catchy phrase--whether melodic or verbal--but he misses Serge's ability to thread continuity from stanza to stanza. In fact, the album's most affecting song is the eerily echoing ballad, "Together Not Together." Dave asks his absent brother, "Can we go on with our lives together, not together?"

For all the ramshackle nature of Problem, with its loosely knitted arrangements of drums, guitar, banjo, and fiddle threatening to fly apart at any moment, there's an emotional transparency that's hard to resist. On the catchy garage-rock number "Muskie Moon," Dave finds himself down at the bar again with "a funny bunch of drunks . . . playing cards and shooting dope." He celebrates their survival, but soon he's doubting even that. "I felt like I could die," he sings on "Valley Farm Song"; "There's a hole in my boat," he admits on "High Water"; on "Put 'Em in the Graveyard," he adds, "Here lies misery in a bottle . . . gimme a lily for the kids from Philly." Here's the sour end-game of the party life, described with unflinching honesty and glorious pop hooks.

Hold Steady's previous studio album was 2008's Stay Positive, and while the title track urged younger listeners to remain optimistic, it also informed them that "There's gonna come a time when the scene will seem less sunny; it will probably get druggy and the kids will seem too skinny." On the band's terrific new Heaven Is Whenever, lead singer Finn adds, "You can't tell people what they want to hear if you also want to tell the truth." He clearly wants to "stay positive" himself, but it's so hard to do in the face of all the evidence. That's the dilemma Springsteen wrestled with on his great '70s and '80s albums, and in trying to pin it to the mat, Hold Steady has created its finest album and one of this year's best.

Hold Steady has also lost a band member when keyboardist Franz Nicolay departed for a solo career. The remaining quartet of two guitars, bass, and drums plows ahead with a bruising, back-to-basics rock 'n' roll as Finn spits out a torrent of syllables and just enough melody to carry us along. (Roman Kuebler of Baltimore's Oranges Band lends harmony vocals.) The "tell the truth" line comes from "Soft in the Center." Addressing a younger friend who has just been released from the hospital after some unidentified screw-up, Finn delivers the sad but true news, "You can't get every girl," but adds the consolation that "You'll love the ones you get." The way the music shifts from the jittery staccato of the verses to the ringing chords of the chorus makes that consolation acceptable.

An even better song is "Hurricane J." In this case, Finn is addressing a 22-year-old girl named Jesse with a crappy waitressing job and a loser boy friend. He describes her predicament in the verses over clipped, held-back guitar rhythms, and then, as the guitars and harmony vocals bust loose on the chorus, gives her this advice: "I don't want you to settle; I want you to grow. Forget all the boys you met at the harbor. They're too hard already; they'll only get harder." Like many of the songs on Whenever, this one is also about the sour endgame of the party life, but unlike Bielanko, Finn sees a way out to another life. Springsteen has never written much about drugs and alcohol, subjects that don't seem to interest him, so it has fallen to Hold Steady to tell those stories. They tell them well.

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