Home Read Classic Album Review: Marah | Float Away With the Friday Night Gods

Classic Album Review: Marah | Float Away With the Friday Night Gods

The Philly rock saviours swing for the fences with their big, bold, bombastic third LP.

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This came out in 2002 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


Reinvention is the double-edged sword of rock ’n’ roll. Sure, it’s the only way to grow, evolve and blossom as an artist. But it’s also the surest way to alienate your audience.

Philly rock saviours Marah have learned that lesson the hard way with their third album Float Away With the Friday Night Gods. Big, bold and bombastic, it’s the most brazenly ambitious disc yet from this roots-rock foursome headed by singer-guitarist brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko. It’s the sort of album that can be a career-maker. Or a career-breaker, judging by the outraged howling it has produced from some former fans and supportive critics.

A short recap: Marah — it rhymes with hurrah, means bitter and comes from the Bible — debuted in 1998 with an underappreciated alt-country indie album called Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight. Then, after finding a fan in Steve Earle and signing to his label, they transformed into the Next Great American Band with their essential sophomore disc Kids in Philly, a stunning landmark that sounds like Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison jamming with The Replacements on some old Faces tunes. It deservedly earned Album of the Year kudos from plenty of critics (including this one).

Naturally, the faithful had high expectations that the brothers’ new record would be the Next Great American Album — Born to Run From the Streets of Philadelphia, if you will. But Float Away isn’t that album — nor does it want to be. Instead of growing up to be The Boss, the swaggering, self-assured Bielankos have apparently set their sights far higher. They seemingly want to be kings — of rock radio, of MTV and MuchMusic, and of stadiums from here to Tokyo.

Of course, if you wanna be a world-dominating rock juggernaut like U2 or Oasis, you gotta sound like one. So the brothers upped the ante, raised the stakes and changed their tune. They packed up their acoustic guitars and banjos, they traded in their Van the Man records and they threw away their lyrics about Rocky Balboa and Christian Street. Which has ticked off some folks to no end. But ultimately, it’s what the band have adopted in their place — arena-rock guitars, space-age production and epic, big-chorus anthems designed to come pumping out of radios from here to Japan — that’s really got some folks feeling as betrayed as that guy screaming “Judas!” at Dylan when he went electric at Royal Albert Hall in the ’60s.

Much of the blame seems to be laid at the feet of their admittedly odd choice in producers: Owen Morris, whose previous clients include The Verve, Ash and (aha!) Oasis. Using every sonic trick in his considerable arsenal, he has given Float Away an ultra-contemporary, cutting-edge sheen that’s admittedly shocking at first blush. Awash in swirling keyboards, covered in layer upon layer of sharp-edged guitar hooks, loaded with backup harmonies, synthesized vocals, clanging sound effects and noisy soundscapes, this is a gloriously unabashed Big Rock Record® that makes the home-made Kids in Philly seem like a teenager’s bedroom demo.

The Bielankos’ songwriting has also taken a quantum leap forward. These guys have always had a knack for a great melody and a catchy lick, but in the past, they often took a less-is-more approach. Now they’re confidently stretching out, easing into the grooves and riding them like a convertible down the freeway. And they’re pulling out all the songwriting stops, jamming every line and verse with classic melodies until every tune has more hooks than a catfisherman’s tackle box.

Ironically enough, though, it all serves to make Float Away a less immediate and more challenging album than its predecessor. Because it’s bursting at the seams with sound, it takes a few spins to find your way to the centre of these songs. But once you do, you’ll stay there. Revved-up rockers like Revolution (think Chuck Berry crossed with T.Rex), For All We Know We Are Dreaming and What 2 Bring just beg to be blasted out of car stereos; groovier tracks like Soul, People of the Underground and Leaving would be chart-toppers if radio programmers had any musical taste. And hell, no less a supporter than Springsteen himself gives the record and the boys his blessing, contributing vocals and a guitar solo to the sweeping opening track and first single Float Away.

So let’s review, shall we? Float Away has ambitious, hook-filled tracks that are anything but disposable pap. The world-class production is innovative and exciting. Springsteen makes a cameo. And plenty of their old supporters can’t stand it. Sounds like the Bielankos are definitely doing something right.