Not many bands use words like "anathema." Hell, most bands probably don't even know what anathema means. That's not the case with the kids in Rainer Maria, who drop the word in the song "Artificial Light," the first track on their third album, A Better Version of Me. Taking its name from 19th-century Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the New York City-via-Madison, Wisconsin trio not only knows the definition of anathema (Webster's says it's a "formal ecclesiastical ban, curse, or excommunication"), it's also got the skills to break down the English language with the acumen of a literature professor.
"People are going to read stuff at different levels," says singer-guitarist Kyle Fischer. "I think people appreciate the poetry that's in the music and in the lyrics, but they may not go, 'Oh, look at this nice extended metaphor device.' I've always been aware of the non sequitur and the imperative when I write. They're the two pillars of poetry, and I think those tendencies come from Rilke. He has this poem about the torso of Apollo, and the whole poem is essentially a description of the torso, and suddenly the last line is: 'You must change your life.' It's like this sudden imperative -- it switches to the second person and comes out of nowhere. But in the poem, it works. Those sort of devices we learned from him."
If this all seems a bit too heady and academic for rock and roll, keep in mind that Rainer Maria, the band, also kicks out the jams. Fischer and bandmates -- singer-bassist Caithlin De Marrais and drummer William Kuehn -- fuse indie-rock basics (swirling guitars, lo-fi execution and production, and cascading song structures) with gripping he-said/she-said vocals. On A Better Version of Me, a blistering, emo-soaked exploration of words and sounds, Rainer Maria makes music that's as smart as it is liberating.
Songs are linked, thematically and sonically, and individual contributions merge during writing. Fischer says it isn't unusual for the band to have three or four different sets of melodies and lyrics per song before the final combination is decided upon. And the music typically comes first. Still, "we're not the kind of band that walks around and says, 'Oh, that's a B flat,'" he explains. "We write music in such a way that it opens itself up to a lot of melodic possibility and then lay the vocals on top of that.
"The advantage of songwriting over poetry is that you have the music already setting a tone for you," he says. "So you can get away with some things that, in a poem, you couldn't get away with. But it also allows the text to emote even more than it might standing alone. It's really fantastic to have those two together. Ideally, you want the distance between them to be seamless. You want the lyric and the music to be so closely wed that there's no tension between them."
Fischer and De Marrais met at a poetry workshop at the University of Wisconsin in 1995. Fischer and Kuehn were already doing the punk rock thing, struggling to lift their band out of its creative rut. By the time De Marrais moved into the group's house/practice space, she and Fischer's collaborative poems were being reworked into the songs that would make up Rainer Maria's initial recordings.
The band toured relentlessly and released a series of records over the next five years. But A Better Version of Me is the album that finally captures the group's dynamism. Fischer attributes this partly to the band's relocating to New York right before sessions for the new album began.
"We all took on the band as a full-time endeavor and quit our day jobs," Fischer says. "So our whole relationship to the process of music making changed overnight. Rather than trying to do this after work or coordinate schedules and practices, we could sit down an extra day to write songs. It was great to be able to spend that kind of time writing and revising. Songwriting is done best when you have a lot of time on your hands, because it's sort of a patience game. You write and wait, write and wait."
A Better Version of Me pushes De Marrais's voice -- an integral part of the band's sound and an enthralling instrument capable of looping around itself -- to the front lines alone. Fischer says his absence on many of the tracks -- in the past, he and De Marrais sparred vocally within songs -- originated during recording, when it became apparent that they worked better with a single vocal treatment than the traditional, male-female approach. "We decided to run with that," he says. "And I think it gives the album a totally different flavor."
One of the album's more curious songs is "The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets," which is basically a rundown of everything found in the pockets of the assassinated 16th president on the day he died: "Two pairs of spectacles, a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief," etc.
"The actual list is as it appears on the lyric sheet," Fischer explains. "They were actually in his pocket. I saw them on display at the Library of Congress."
After years of touring dingy clubs, Rainer Maria is back at it again, playing its poetic songs to the indie-rock elite who appreciate the difference. Fischer says he hasn't tired of touring yet, since it offers him and the band the opportunity to expand on the group's recorded repertoire. He enjoys the "kinetic energy of playing live, coming out of the punk-rock-guitar freakout tradition of Fugazi." But he also acknowledges the "full-body rock guitar school of Jimi Hendrix."
"The sound comes from your feet and shoots all the way up to your head," he explains. "We really try to play through the body. Caithlin was originally trained as a dancer, and she's kind of a small woman, but she sings from the bottom. And Bill has just got these long arms. There's just so much more physicality playing live. In the studio, you become a disembodied thing on tape. The trick is to convey the sense of excitement that you get from the live show; to find a way to communicate that musically on tape with tonalities and tempos. It's a physical trick, but I do think with this album we succeeded.
"But on the other hand, it's really great to play live; to dig your heels in and go after it."
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