By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
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By Brian Palmer
It's that blasted rock iconography that gets in the way, screwing up what should be a fresh perspective and an unprejudiced listen. For example: If you've heard about Wisconsin-based trio Rainer Maria, you probably know that Caithlin De Marrais and Kyle Fischer met at a poetry workshop at the University of Wisconsin's Madison branch. You probably also know that Fischer had been playing guitar in a local punk band with drummer William Kuehn, and that the three finally coalesced into Rainer Maria in 1995. And you'll certainly be aware that the band is named after Prague-born poet R.M. Rilke (1875-1926), author of Sonnets to Orpheus, the Duino Elegies, Letters to a Young Poet and other lighthearted classics.
If you know that much -- or if you were just paying close attention -- you likely remember the accolades that the group's last full-length album, 1999's Look Now Look Again, received from sources like CMJ, Magnet, A.P. and others. Spin named it one of the year's top releases, as did Neil Strauss of the New York Times' "The Pop Life" section. But if you're reading about them before you've had a listen, you might get hung up on the "P" word: poetry.
Look, one could hardly blame you; our historical models along these lines consist, pretty exactly, of a disparate triad formed by John Lennon, Jim Morrison and Jewel. Casting no aspersions (my own guess is that Jewel writes poetry at least as good as William Carlos Williams played the bottleneck slide), this doesn't leave a lot of room to maneuver.
Of the three prominent models at our disposal, Rainer Maria aligns itself with precisely none. Neither as self-consciously bizarre as Lennon, as self-consciously arteest-ic as Morrison or as self-consciously whatever-Jewel-is as Jewel, Rainer Maria is the kind of band of which one might say, "They're too literate for rock," except that it is rock, emphatically so. It's also literate and witty, and in moments it is, like Lennon's work could be, bizarre and unexpected. And, as in the best moments of Galaxie 500 or Luna (with whom R.M. will be performing a clutch of shows in California in February), the art sounds deceptively simple, until you really begin paying attention.
That's what you'll be missing, if you bypass Rainer Maria solely because the words "rock" and "poetry," in any combination, bring to mind the recitation sequence in "Nights in White Satin." Don't worry. You're safe.
Rainer Maria's new album, the Mark Haines-produced A Better Version of Me, is something like the third entry in a conceptual series, beginning with 1997's Past Worn Searching and continuing with Look Now Look Again. "Last time we were working really hard with the lyrics," says singer/bassist/lyricist De Marrais, "almost battling it out word for word. This album was more focused on the idea of, 'If you want to do something for yourself, just gofor it.' So it was sort of a more individualized reflection [among the members of the band]. It's funny, because this album has a lot of pop sound to it, but I tend to see the dark side more, for some reason, when I listen to it back. There's a lot of shouting, or questions being asked and not answered. But I think there are some moments of humor in it, too."
There are, which is one of the many elements that set this band apart from some others it resembles sonically, like Sleater-Kinney, Superchunk or that dog. Widely tagged as "emo" upon its first release (there's the blasted limiting iconography again), Rainer Maria's music takes a wide left turn with Better Version. The format is the same as on previous releases -- guitar, bass, drums, songs about being or getting fucked up, and very few overdubs except for the odd vocal harmony -- but the themes here are more complicated, the ideas more difficult to articulate, which is largely due to Caithlin De Marrais' progression as a writer.
"Caithlin wrote, easily, the lion's share of the lyrics this time out," reports singer/guitarist/lyricist Fischer. "It's really her baby, thematically." Better Version was recorded, like Look Now, at Wisconsin's Smart Studios, and assembled in early September 2000. Starting from instrumentals and chord-change run-throughs recorded to four-track, De Marrais took the raw tapes home after the practice sessions and tried out lyrics on top of the sounds. It was an approach that mutated Rainer Maria's duo-voice approach, which dominated the group's previous full-lengths. "The vocals, I think, are less strained on this album simply because of the circumstances in which [Caithlin] developed them. The first two albums were much more 'relationship songs'; there was a lot more me-and-you, couples' rock. So there was this, like, 'Meat Loaf factor' . . . whereas with this album it became clear, when we went to develop the harmonies, that by mixing the genders we were really putting a dynamic in the songs that didn't belong there. We were bringing in this sort of overtly heterosexual overtone that didn't fit."
De Marrais and Fischer's widely lauded two-pronged vocal approach takes something of a back seat on Better Version, which makes perfect sense. Most of the songs here are internal monologues, or requests that don't really anticipate an answer: "Open up your chest. Put my hand inside. It's dishwater warm, smooth as porcelain, and it flakes away like red rust." Or, from the remarkable rideout track "Hell and High Water": "I've seen the girl who'll pick up where I leave off. She's already smoothing her hands for the pictures. I've seen her sorting through my memories. What's sweet? What's bitter? She wants what I can't give her. . . . I'm lost, but she's found a better way to get 'round. I tell myself you're not a fool."