The problem with roots-rockers is that, when in doubt, they jam.
After Marah's breakthrough with the wide-screen E Street fantasia Kids in Philly and subsequent major-label bust with Float Away With the Friday Night Gods, the band stopped trying to be famous and has reverted to rallying communal authenticity: The ephemeral new Life Is a Problem is full of harmonica hoedowns, field recordings, distant campfires, and even bagpipes. The title tune still rocks the castanets from "Round Eye Blues." The jams are harmless, the songs are transient.
The competition for tight-wound E Street imitations is stiff right now: the Hold Steady, the Gaslight Anthem, Against Me!'s underrated new opus, White Crosses. Marah is a lot more like Southside Johnny's Asbury Jukes anyway: fewer stories, more feel. For its members' annual Christmas stop at the World Cafe on Sunday, they felt downright muddy.
With harmonica/guitar player Serge Bielanko departed, his brother David gargled over a raw, basic version of Marah (abetted by opener and longtime collaborator Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner) through riffage that occasionally and strangely recalled Aerosmith. Less surprising were straight-up covers of "Baby It's Cold Outside" and the Pogues-penned "Fairytale of New York," the show highlight, sung by second-billed Jesse Malin in a duet with colorfully dressed keyboardist Christine Smith.
Malin's former band D Generation, with its New York Dolls-inspired "Helpless" and Ryan Adams-produced Fine Art of Self-Destruction in 2002, were early peaks in a still lively, unsure, power-pop career. His current band, the St. Marks Social, tore through a fine, brisk opening set between yarns about Glaswegian epithets for homosexual and trespassing on J.D. Salinger's property. The pure woo-chorus sugar of this year's "All the Way from Moscow" began an excellent finale, where Malin sat on the floor with the crowd to finish the power ballad "Solitaire," question aloud whether he's alt-country, and share his father's fashion critiques from his punk days ("In those shoes you look like Rain Man or some orthopedic retard!"). That was followed by the greatest band introductions I've heard in my life. On drummer Ty Smith: "He doesn't have cameras in his bathroom, as far I know."
Malin's got the charm, and songwise he's about halfway there; he should listen to Rhett Miller's (Old 97's) solo albums and plug a similar clarity into his Dolls attack.