20,000 Streets Under the Sky

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The kids from Philly continue their widescreen explorations into the street characters and urban landscapes they have been moving toward during their past three albums. Self-recording with their own funds and without major-label input hasn't cheapened the group's approach. In fact, this is arguably their best-sounding disc, with instruments reverberating in multiple overdubs and frontman/lyricist David Bielanko's aching vocals -- somewhat like the Del Fuegos' Dan Zanes -- as clear, soulful, and potent as if he's in the room with you. Theirs is the shimmering, noir world of outsiders, junkies, loners, and doomed lovers that Bruce Springsteen (who guested on their last release) so effectively portrays. But on this gritty album the doo wop and Brill Building '60s pop roots are more fully explored. Even without hearing David's haunting lyrics, the handclaps, horns, and backing vocals erupt in a visceral, shambling production that evokes city tenement life on the poorer side of town with West Side Story toughness. Although not a rock opera or even a themed disc, David and brother Serge have crafted a stunning and detailed audio version of the inner city, as seen by scrappy rock & rollers with an ear for the past. It's a big, brooding, and often joyous album, as the multi-layered tracks make each immaculately crafted song sound as forceful and unpredictable as a runaway train. Along with the prominent Springsteen influence, are nods to fellow New Jersey-ite Southside Johnny, especially in the singalong choruses of "Tame the Tiger" and the "shimmy, shimmy ko ko bop" quote of the anthemic "Freedom Park," this album's "Born to Run." It's a sprawling, throbbing, assertive work that shows Marah to be masters of the studio and visionaries on a grand scale.

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