Catastrophe Keeps Us Together
ometime in the not-too-distant future, when everyone who was 16 is 28, when the pre-made “retro” t-shirts obtain vintage status themselves, Stylus will run an “On Second Thought” feature on Rainer Maria’s sophomore breakthrough Look Now Look Again. Praising the album’s “fight for sexual maturity in the face of rock’n’ roll’s constant adolescence,” Stylus will proclaim it “one of the three or four best albums of the late-90’s emo boom.” The column will be largely ignored, save for one comment praising the Get Up Kids, one comment criticizing the Get Up Kids, and one comment politely asking editor Todd Burns to oust the writer.
Look Now was my, and I suspect, most people’s introduction to Rainer Maria, an album of unashamed, twenty-something yearning that, at the very least, proved twenty-something yearning isn’t that much different from late-teenage yearning or mid-30’s yearning. It was an “emo” album in every sense of the word, and one that stands out years later as a hallmark for both the band and a scene that has proved a boon for MTV and the weeping skeleton in every indie kid’s closet.
Rainer Maria have long since moved on. The follow-up to Look Now, A Better Version of Me, showed immediate progression: tighter arrangements, cleaner vocals, brighter choruses. And on Catastrophe Keeps Us Together, the trio of Caithlin De Marrais, Kyle Fisher, and William Kuehn continue their shift to lean, vaguely punk-influenced pop music.
If you were to interview the band, I’m sure they’d tell you that they were never part of any “scene,” that they don’t know what “emo” means, and that theirs has been a natural, unique progression. Whether that’s truth or blustery posturing, the fact remains that Rainer Maria were a very important part of a scene and a sound that they are no longer a part of. No one should fault the band for jumping off a sinking ship, but the comparison to their earlier, emo-oriented material isn’t just lazy journalism; Rainer Maria’s current incarnation lacks a dynamic and a tension that was largely responsible for their earlier success, even as their craftsmanship strides forward.
Catastrophe features exclusively De Marrais on vocals; absent is her audio flirting/arguing with Fisher, the fuel for many of the band’s most affecting moments. De Marrais proves an able center of attention. She refuses to play the glass-hearted Rapunzel, for while she often searches for help, she never begs. The tag-you’re-it interplay between De Marrais and Fisher supplied more than just Wonder Bread sexual tension, however, and the move away from nervy breakup-sex has smoothed the guitars, evened the tempos, and turned brainy/horny into brainy/contemplative, every advance tempered by irritating, academic precision: “Can you name every bone in my body?” De Marrais asks, before killing the mood, “Can you make every tone in my head?”
The band occasionally breaks through, finding a soft-pop center on “Terrified,” and “Clear and True,” but too many songs are caught between the band’s fading post-punk tension and their more professional desires. “Bottle” chugs along on a pre-natal Guitar Center bed of power chords, sounding thin and sterile in the midst of better production and De Marrais’ suddenly newly on-key wailing. The band’s cover of the Dylan-penned, Nico-performed “I’ll Keep It With Mine” crystallizes the problem for everyone—De Marrais wipes the sex out of Nico’s croon, settling instead for a soft-core, adult-contemporary reading. The tune never gets away from the band, but it seems to sit and wait for something interesting to happen. It never does.