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A Welcome Catastrophe 

Rainer Maria explores new ground with evolving sound.

A meeting of minds (clockwise from top): Kyle Fisher, Caithlin De Marrais, and William Kuehn.
  • A meeting of minds (clockwise from top): Kyle Fisher, Caithlin De Marrais, and William Kuehn.

Grow or die. Change or stagnate. Evolve or dissolve.

It's a mantra you often hear from musicians, particularly those with some mileage on their career odometers. Too often, though, it's a convenient escape clause for bands bored with their own sounds and ideas, with each other -- sometimes even with their fans. But on rare occasions it's shorthand for a journey that band members embark on together with their fans, each sonic shift as much a celebration of what's come before as what lies ahead.

For Brooklyn, New York trio Rainer Maria, the subtle sonic alterations occurring over the course of five studio full-lengths have resulted in a drastically different sound than the one the group began with back in Madison, Wisconsin. It's a long way from the sparse, trellis-like emo duets of Caithlin De Marrais and Kyle Fischer on Rainer Maria's 1997 debut, Past Worn Searching, to the lush, fleshed-out rock songs De Marrais sings by herself on the band's latest, the shimmering Catastrophe Keeps Us Together.

"It's definitely a progression," says De Marrais. "It's amazed all three of us, the time it has taken to get to this point. And it's just so satisfying to be here now."

But change has been such an organic process for Rainer Maria that the bandmates found themselves in familiar territory when it came to recording Catastrophe, one of the first releases for the new imprint Grunion Records.

"People come up to us and say, 'I love the album, I can't believe how much you've grown,'" says drummer William Kuehn. "But the whole writing process we went through was very similar to some of our earlier experiences, because we didn't have a label or a deadline, so we wrote the songs really for ourselves. We took our time with them and let them go wherever they wanted and let our imaginations run wild."

Written after the band parted ways with Polyvinyl Records (its home from the start), the songs on Catastrophe exhibit the urgency of audition material, which in effect many were. After recording two songs with Peter Katis (Interpol, Tiger Lou) -- the title track and "Life of Leisure," which wound up as the first two cuts on Catastrophe -- the trio made a wish list of other producers they also admired and then sent off songs to see who was interested. One respondent was Malcolm Burn, known for his work with Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan. The band made the two-hour trip to Burn's home studio in Kingston, New York, and recorded two songs, "Burn" and "Make You Mine," in one 12-hour session. After hearing the results, they committed to recording the rest of Catastrophe with him.

"We were amazed with what he did," says Kuehn. "You can tell it's a Malcolm Burn recording with that lush production, but you can also tell that they're Rainer Maria songs, because they were written by the three of us and everything was recorded pretty much live."

Burn's rich production is just one obvious alteration in Rainer Maria's sound on Catastrophe. The lack of any Fischer vocals -- his singing role has diminished with recent releases -- puts De Marrais' voice and lyrics center stage. While fans can ascribe the absence of any vocal tête-à-têtes between De Marrais and Fischer to whatever inside machinations they like, the band insists there's nothing provocative or sinister about it.

"It's such an often-asked question. And it's strange, because there wasn't one day when we decided, 'Okay, from now on I do this and you do that,'" says De Marrais, laughing. "At the time it naturally progressed from what occupation in the band was more enticing to us, and as a guitarist, Kyle has come so far. I remember his first show (in Ezra Pound) on guitar, and now it's just the most beautiful, beautiful lush sound; nobody else sounds like him.

"Who knows, maybe we'll start singing together again. I don't really know. It's everything in service of the song right now."

Here, too, the subtle changes over the course of Rainer Maria's catalog reach their next logical stage. In the absence of Fischer's indie yelp, De Marrais' voice has become clarionlike, carried aloft on Fischer's guitar gales and Kuehn's thunderous percussion. There's also corresponding directness and clarity of vision in the lyrics.

"I have grown more confident in my desire to actually express something more directly, instead of being more poetic and using metaphors," De Marrais says. "I want to pull people closer and speak directly, instead of indulging my nightmares. I want to have conversations with the people outside of myself more."

One of the catalysts for this more immediate approach has been living in New York City in the aftermath of September 11 and chronicling the healing process, which informs the album's title cut.

"It's about seeing people recovering from 2001 and also finding humor in it too, and relief, that we can be so happy to be alive," De Marrais says. "It is kind of like a camaraderie song, like we're all in this together, even though it is coming from personal fears and concerns. But the best way to get out of that is to call out to the people around you."

Regardless of the changes Rainer Maria has gone through on record, the group's commitment to live shows has remained constant, even as the new material raises challenges in ways that couldn't have been foreseen.

"I remember the feeling of fear and abandonment that the early years for me were like, and now there's the level of feeling in control of the music," De Marrais says.

But even experience doesn't wipe away those butterflies completely.

"It's scary as hell, the first couple nights playing any new song, much less new songs with a slightly different sound that you haven't experimented with before," says Kuehn. "But it's really exhilarating to play live and have it come across and translate into something that you wanted. We've found that oftentimes it's translated into something much more special than even appeared on the record."

Those who've ridden along have witnessed Rainer Maria's evolution from a noisy, angular rock band with shards of melody poking through to a creamy, frothy churn of texture and hooks. But whether you've been with the group from the beginning or just came upon it, for the members of Rainer Maria it's all the same. It's about right now -- like the live shows -- and the unexpected directions in which the moment, like their career, might lead them.

More by John Schacht

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