Marah - Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania
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Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania (Valley Farm, 2014)


Reviewed by Robert Loy

Marah is a Hebrew word that means bitter - which might describe the reaction of any fan that expects the band of that name to ever sound the same (or even have the same lineup) from album to album. From their brilliant, boisterous debut "Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later Tonight" in 1998 to 2010's subdued (not to say melancholy) "Life is a Problem," with forays into everything from bluegrass to Britpop in between, the only constant has been their respect for all of America's musical roots, intelligent lyrics that have captivated writers such as Nick Hornby and Stephen King (who called Marah "The best American band nobody knows') and a cult following anxious to tag along anywhere Marah's muse may lead.

Anywhere? Well, maybe not. On their 10th studio album (if you can call an old Gothic church in Pennsylvania Amish country a studio), Marah reaches so far back into their roots that some listeners may initially feel disoriented - maybe even a bit jet-lagged. "Mountain Minstrelsy (as Sung in the Backwoods Settlements, Hunting Cabins and Lumber Camps in the "Black Forest" of Pennsylvania, 1840-1923)" was an obscure book of lyrics presumed lost when it was published in 1931.

Marah founding member Dave Bielanko and his favorite co-conspirator, Christine Smith, set out on a mission to resuscitate these songs and bring them back into a world they would feel comfortable in - no electric instruments, recording techniques that would have been familiar to Jimmie Rodgers. And it should probably come with a warning label: "Attention xenophobes: L.P. Hartley was right when he said 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.'"

All the time traveler may note on first listen is how unfamiliar it all feels - assuming, of course, the listener is under 120 years old. No effort is made to accommodate the music to a modern ear. But with subsequent spins of this LP (also released - albeit begrudgingly - in digital format), the traveler begins to get his bearings. "Ten Cents at the Gate" is probably the most accessible track - literally, as the church doors were left open and Marah are joined by a barbershop quartet and a hundred or so locals singing along to "In the sweet by and by" chorus. And after that you stop noticing the odd instrument combos - banjo and tuba? - or that some of the things the natives make music with aren't exactly instruments. You realize as you listen to "The Old Riverman's Regret" that we all suffer from nostalgia, we've all marveled at the mysteries of nature like the man exhorting "Sing! O Muse of the Mountain" and before you know it, like a full immersion language graduate, you understand these people, and you feel what they feel; maybe they're not so alien after all. Maybe we are all brothers after all.

And that's when somebody passes around a plate of monkey meat or dog and expects you to partake. In this case the dish even the sophisticated traveler may have trouble swallowing comes in the form of eight-year-old Gus Tritsch - not his fiddle playing, which is phenomenal, the word "prodigy" seems inadequate here; but when they hand the lead vocal chores off to him as they do on two tracks - well, let's just say it's an acquired taste few of us will ever acquire.

Bon voyage!

CDs by Marah

Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, 2014

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