by Erick Trickey
Three years ago, the DJs on my favorite college radio station fell in love with a song that had a beautiful, obsessive chorus. "I wanted to be sweet/So you won't disappoint me," a woman sang with such pain and rage that it was clear her sweetness wasn't rewarded. The repetitions sustained the emotions far past the point where I expected the song to break. Not even finding out the song was called "The Awful Truth of Loving" cured me of needing to hear it again. It was a Rainer Maria song from Long Knives Drawn, a ferocious album about love as a battle both between the lovers and between a couple and the rest of the world.
Rainer Maria is named after the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, but it's hard to hold that against this band once you hear its music. Now that I have, I think the name is just right. Long Knives Drawn and its new album, Catastrophe Keeps Us Together, tap the same yearning as Rilke's Duino Elegies and Letters to a Young Poet: the desire to swoon; to embrace deep emotion, good or bad; to feel the tug of some epic force in the sky.
"Baby, there's the moon/I'll sing it down if you ask me to," vocalist Caithlin De Marrais sings a cappella to start the song "Bottle." A soft, sharp electric guitar accompanies her next two lines, and then bang! the drums slam in and tough guitar chords drown her vocals. Rilke, who hoped terrifying angels would hear his cries, would approve.
Rainer Maria started out in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1995 as an emo band, meaning it played an ultra-emotional strand of punk rock and didn't try too hard to be tuneful. De Marrais often traded vocals with guitarist Kyle Fischer. She shouted, he warbled. A Better Version of Me (2000) yes, aptly named caught the band in transition, learning to focus. The best songs were fast
and tight, helping De Marrais pull off her sometimes wordy lyrics, while the slower songs wandered, and Fischer's one lead vocal was utterly skippable. So on Long Knives Drawn (2002), the group rocked out and let De Marrais sing everything. The result had punk's speed and intensity, alt-rock melodies, and powerful precision.
Catastrophe Keeps Us Together, released last month after three years of work, also shows off Rainer Maria's strengths: De Marrais's plaintive voice, choruses that grow to ever-greater heights when repeated, elusive metaphors about tempestuous intimacy. "Catastrophe keeps us together/We're the architects of the world/And we're taking it all apart," sings De Marrais, making apocalyptic vision romantic. And on several songs, especially "Burn," a smoldering track about a destructive romance that's been getting lots of airplay on indie-rock stations, the band masters quieter moods for the first time.
Rainer Maria plays the Blind Pig on Sunday, May 14.
[Review published May 2006]