Poetic Justice

Eschewing lizard-king pretense, Rainer Maria offers highbrow rock for the literate masses

Notice the lack of line breaks. Rainer Maria doesn't use 'em. The words just fall in sequence where they may, a direct influence of their study of the written poetic line. Notice, too, the wobbly trust implicit in that last lyric, in which Caithlin sings about the girl she's about to become, how much more comfortable that girl is in the world, and how little she understands that power from her present perspective.

"That's a song that's kind of like saying 'Get over it,'" she says. "There's this new you emerging, let her take over. You don't have to feel the pain of the past." Indeed, there's a lot of survival implicit on Better Version, beginning in the title itself. The closing track of Look Now found De Marrais singing about driving into the trees and making a righteous mess. Here she's looking forward with a measure of hope; that the hope rightfully belongs to a woman she hasn't become yet is indicative of the album's complex rewards. Better Version never takes the easy exit.

As added proof, take the album's rollicking centerpiece, "The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets," written mostly by Fischer, which begins as an autopsy inventory but soon spirals off into a high-theory exercise: "Two pairs of spectacles, a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief, a brown leather wallet containing five dollars in confederate money and nine newspaper clippings." In the background, there's De Marrais' voice keening "Make amends, let's make amends. Make a man, what makes a man? His body lists and folds, creased at the hip. . . . The light's gone out, but even now he's radiating heat. These relics rise like steam. . . . How can you deal with that kind of information?"

Rainer Maria: From left, William Kuehn, Caithlin De Marrais and Kyle Fischer.
Stefano Giovanni
Rainer Maria: From left, William Kuehn, Caithlin De Marrais and Kyle Fischer.

The punch line, of course, is that this dense track features the most insistently poppy, hook-driven music on the record. "We were totally worried with that song," says Fischer. "Usually we get about two weeks to work with putting lyrics to music, and if in two weeks we don't get a vocal, generally speaking, that song will fall by the wayside. But that one sat around, for some reason. And because the form of the song is such aggressive pop, we were like, 'If we write some insipid vocal, this song's gonna float away, and it won't do anyone any good.' We said, 'Okay, we've got to come up with something . . . something almost theoretical. Almost totally oblique.' And then somehow we hit on the idea of doing this Walter Benjamin-ian rave-up on Lincoln's assassination, and we all loved it. It was like, 'What could be less appropriate for that music?'"

If that exercise sounds a little too uncomfortably like trite indie-rock navel-gazing, all we can stress is that Rainer Maria brings everyone along on the joke, so "Contents" never comes off tragically hip or purposefully obscure. You don't need liner notes or a score card to get it, either; rather, you hear the joke being built from the floor up. It's one of the album's truly funny and touching moments.

Moments like that have encouraged Rainer Maria's fans to bare the contents of their own pockets, as well. At one gig, R.M.'s drummer and de facto business manager William Kuehn received a fan's tattered and note-laden copy of the selected works of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Recently, somebody brought them a whole damn painting.

Kuehn, who once promoted shows in Madison along with Fischer, is accustomed to meeting people in the course of the band's business. "I went into it voluntarily; nobody had to twist my arm. I'd managed a couple of businesses before, and I'd worked with promoting shows, so now I was going to see if I could do it the other way around, talk to the promoters in order to set up the shows. And it worked out pretty well. I don't have to do that anymore, but for the four years I did it, I learned a lot. I actually rather enjoyed it.

"Our fans, for the most part, are very mild-mannered," Kuehn continues. "Every once in a while we'll get handed arts and crafts after the show. Like that particular woman, she said she had been listening to our last album [Look Now] over the course of like a week, and she painted to it, and gave the painting to us. I thought it was great. I think that's really cool that people take the time out of their days to create this stuff and pass it along."

As far as your stereotypical rock 'n' roll memorabilia goes, one could bring home less gratifying relics from the road. I mean, Methods of Mayhem is probably never going to have to worry about where to stow a fan's oil portrait.

Kuehn agrees. "Yeah. I'll take a painting and a Pablo Neruda book over the clap any day," he says, laughing.

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