If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry

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On Marah's fifth album, If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry, the group casts aside the big and glossy productions of the last couple records and adopts a more intimate and loose feel. The album was recorded pretty much live in the studio and the sound is stripped down and very immediate. Stripped down but still rife with horns, strings, glockenspiels, percussion and handclaps and still filled with the kind of surprises (like the glittery disco beats on "The Hustle" or the Beach Boys-influenced vocal harmonies that begin "The Demon of White Sadness," to name but a couple) that have always helped separate the band from their over-earnest alt-country/Americana competition. Another thing that has always separated them has been David Bielanko's lyrics and vocals, and they are better than ever here. His loopy and wild-eyed vocals deliver his street poet lines with intense beauty throughout. He even restrains himself -- for a change -- on some of the ballads, especially "City of Dreams," on which he sounds almost angelic. The songs are among the band's best and most varied, whether they're rampaging rockers ("Fat Boy" or "Poor People"), wild lyrical flights of fancy ("The Closer"), emotional tours de force ("So What if We're Outta Tune [With the Rest of the World]"), heartbreaking character sketches ("The Dishwasher's Dream") or confessions ("The Apartment"). Every song is a direct punch to the heart, written and played with a fever that only the best rock & roll has. Their focus on the song and the performance, rather than the sound and the production, has proved to be a stroke of genius; the band has never sounded more honest or important. If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry is the kind of record Dylan might make in 2005 if he were still making records as good as Highway 61 Revisited, or the kind of record Springsteen might make if he were updating Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.. Marah will never make the widespread cultural impact of those two artists and this record won't make them rich or famous, but it is a monster rock & roll album that you flat-out need to hear, their best yet. And that is really saying something.

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