Marah's 2000 album Kids In Philly had rock fans raving about the vivid city stories of bandleader brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko, and how they'd found a fruitful pop path that'd been largely unexplored since 1973, when Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison were making hips shake and fingers snap. But while Marah's two albums since Kids In Philly were both quite good, some of the band's early supporters have been disappointed that the Bielankos haven't progressed appreciably from their initial E Street Shuffle/Saint Dominic's Preview sound. Heck, Marah hasn't even traveled as far as Born To Run and Veedon Fleece.

Marah's new If You Didn't Laugh... You'd Cry doesn't represent much of a step forward either, but it's still the band's best album since Kids In Philly, and one of the most consistently invigorating rock records of this year. Aside from the acoustic reveries "City Of Dreams" and "So What If We're Out Of Tune (With The Rest Of The World)," If You Didn't Laugh is all about tumbling rhythms, stinging guitar, rattling percussion, and the breathless patter of Dave Bielanko. Starting with the one-two punch of "The Closer," with its raucous Rolling Stones on Main Street rush, and "The Hustle," with its handclap boogie, the record rolls on briskly to its concluding shout-to-the-I-beams anthem "This Time," with scarcely a wasted song or extraneous note. Even though Marah sings about bad times on working-class laments like "Demon Of White Sadness" and "Poor People," this is fundamentally good-time music, designed to carry the listener through 40 minutes of catchy tunes and commiseration. The album's central song, "Sooner Or Later"—the riff of which is reprised more than once between other tracks—tells the band's fans, "don't expect much," and insists that eventually all the world's winners and losers will be coming back to Marah for beers and smokes, because the band is quite happily stuck in place.

Simultaneous to the release of If You Didn't Laugh, Marah is putting out a Christmas album, A Christmas Kind Of Town, which ranges from fairly faithful covers of standards like "Silver Bells" and "Let It Snow" to originals like "Counting The Days ('Til Christmas)" and "New York Is A Christmas Kind Of Town." Like most rock 'n' roll Christmas records, Marah's effort sticks with the ooh-ing background singers and jingling bells of Phil Spector's classic yuletide sides, but the Bielankos add a few nods to the jovial, snow-swept atmosphere of old TV holiday specials as well. The result is that rare breed of Christmas album that revelers will want to play straight through, from the opening Vince Guaraldi cover to the closing seven-minute polka.

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