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."
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?"
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.