What is that tickle in the back of the mind at the beginning of "East," the lead-off track on Philly rockers Marah's latest disc? What do that heartily strummed acoustic guitar, militant snare roll, twee tapped bells and cigarette-lighter Keef-esque guitar lead add up to in the gray matter mush of pop-culture references? Is it Little Steven's bandana, dripping with sweat, plowing through the fourth set at the Stone Pony? Or Dylan scratching that great 'fro and asking you to "give the anarchist a cigarette" in Don't Look Back? No -- no, I've got it. It's the Ben Stiller Show, and Ben's playing Bruuuce, showing up in the blue-collar bar and not just playing three unannounced sets, but cleaning the floor afterwards.
Just like Stiller's Springsteen, there's something of an overkill to Marah's Bruuuce-and-Keef-inspired anthem-heavy city-life paean, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. But it's not totally eye-rolling overkill -- Marah's intent is thoroughly honorable, its effort honest and its victories hard-fought. And the fact is, despite how it looks on paper, when David Bielanko sings a line like, "remember, remember the sound / of broken bottles beneath our feet / as we crash through heaven's tollbooth / in our fleeting getaway car," it really does shake up those same you-and-me-against-the-world fists that Born to Run stirred in 16-year-old Jersey boys.
It may not have as good a title as the band's debut (Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight) or the obvious-yet-cool guest action of Kids in Philly (the Boss), but 20,000 is still a step up for Marah. While the spot-the-influence game is on more than ever, it's partially because Marah's songwriting has gotten pretty damn close to the idols they're copying: "Going Thru the Motions" could be from Exile on South Street; "Pizzeria" like if Billy Joel had done something worthwhile at some point; "Body" the kind of Jersey anthem that gets drawn out into a 10-minute encore.
You've gotta love the clichés they trade in before you'll love Marah: glam-rock handclaps, teen-idol doo-wa-diddy chick backing vocals, mid-tempo burners packed lyrically with pigeons and pizzerias, neighborhood bars filled with neighborhood drug dealers, proper names of people and places invested with a mystique you've got to be looking for to find. But if you're ready for all that -- and many are, judging from Marah's acclaim and fan base -- you're not gonna find it done better.