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Rainer Maria - Long Knives Drawn

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Artist: Rainer Maria

Album: Long Knives Drawn

Label: Polyvinyl

Review date: Feb. 27, 2003

Brain or Beauty Queen?

In the film Say Anything, one character remarks that Diane Court, the object of Lloyd Dobbler’s affection, is a "brain trapped in the body of a beauty queen". If one were to attempt to describe the essence of Rainer Maria, this wouldn't be a bad place to start. The band has always worn their Lit Studies credentials on their sleeve, unafraid to sound pretentious or even embarrassing in their attempts to make poetry out of romantic confusion. They're also a pretty sexy bunch, even for indie rock standards, as evidenced by the photo accompanying their fourth album, Long Knives Drawn. Drummer Bill Kuehn sports a silk scarf, and singer Caithlin De Marrais looks like she stepped out of a Vogue photo shoot. From this picture, it's hard to imagine them rocking it in a scummy rock club, but this is part of their allure, and it speaks to an interesting contradiction in their music.

The band works from a punk-derived sound, but their songs would never be mistaken for "punk rock" as such. This has nothing to do with the "emotional" content of their lyrics, but rather the shimmering, ethereal beauty that creeps into even the most frenzied of their songs. Lyrically, Rainer Maria can be a tad precious, but they're also highly literate, and quite often their songs offer complex studies of personal interaction. What makes Rainer Maria's music successful, however, is the coupling of these lyrics with Fischer's contorted, delirious guitar and De Marrais' confident, melodic howl. In the simplest terms, Rainer Maria's performance brings the songs to life, breathing energy and strength into the most awkward, unwieldy lyrics.

Music often deals with these contrasts, exploring the gulf between the content of a song's lyrics and the particular power of the sounds accompanying them. And it's one of the perverse joys of Rainer Maria, that somewhere between the pretentious, weighty import of their words and the cacophony of their music that something intensely beautiful happens. It's not easy to accept this sometimes, as Rainer Maria have and always will be a band that is easy to hate. Apart from anything else, it's easy to hate them because their music works, because it hits you and makes you a little weak in the knees. This isn't a feeling that a jaded listener is used to, and it can feel manipulative, like a tear-jerking film. We want emo we can laugh at, not music that disarms us and makes us feel something.

Long Knives Drawn is a logical step from 2001's A Better Version of Me, where the band fully aligned itself behind De Marrais' singing and Fischer found the band's defining sound: a thick, noisy open-tuned guitar that manages to float above the music while simultaneously providing its foundation. This sound is perfected further on Long Knives Drawn, where the music is distilled even further, made even more angular and minimal. The band's grasp of dynamics, both musical and emotional, has deepened, resulting in Long Knives, their most nuanced album yet, with a much more understated approach than on past efforts. Successes include "Long Knives" and "Ears Ring", which are both stripped-down, fast and noisy to the point of sounding discordant. One major addition to the band's sound on this record is De Marrais' inventive bass playing, which often chooses "wrong" notes that add a subtle tension to the playing. Fischer's guitar on these tracks is so simple that it often washes by on a rush of energy and feedback, without any discernable chord changes, providing a real sense of exhilaration to much of the material.

The band's melodic sense is as strong as ever, and despite some missteps, the album generally exhibits a positive step forward for the band. Especially affecting is the closer, "Situation: Relation", which glides along on nothing more than Fischer's delicate guitar and De Marrais' wounded, whispering voice. As might be expected, it's a break-up song, but it feels genuine, unforced, so quiet that it forces you to lean in. It's this growing deftness and ear for subtlety that sets Rainer Maria far apart from their more emotionally overbearing counterparts, such as Dashboard Confessional, who bellow very straightforward accounts of high school relationship trauma. This subtlety is what saves Rainer Maria, and it's what is bringing them closer to exceptional with each album.

By Jason Dungan

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