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Lots of artists bear a share of the blame for transforming what started as a soundtrack for juvenile delinquency into a bully pulpit for pontificating do-gooders. But whether you point the finger at the Fugs (you’ve gotta be kidding) or at Fugazi (my personal choice), there’s no denying that somewhere along the line, people started expecting their rockers to grow up and get serious.
The result is a subspecies of popular music known (at least to me) as “earnest rock.” Earnest rock has its origins in folk, which gave us Bob Dylan, who in turn begat an entire generation of socially conscious singer-songwriters. No wonder poor Iggy Pop, who understood that his audience preferred peanut butter to protest, could look back on the ’60s and call them “No Fun.”
Not that the ’70s were much better. The glam folks did their platform-booted best to bring some fun back to rock, only to be crowded out bysurprise!the killjoy spawn of Dylan, who moved en masse to California to navel-gaze before throwing themselves back into the saving-the-world business. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a wretched cabal of myth-obsessed prog rockers not only populated their music with faeries, but also attempted to dress it for success in the ill-fitting raiment of the European classical-music tradition. All of which so disgusted the world’s fun-hungry youth that they created punk, which insisted on returning rock to its loud, fast, and dumb roots.
Unfortunately, punk’s primal (and humorous) promise quickly succumbed to various horrible strains of artistic pretension and scolding seriousness, including (the list is endless) goth rock, which was really just prog rock made by wannabe vampires, and political hardcore, which attempted to transform punk rock into a “positive force” by draining every last ounce of humor out of it.
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Which brings us at long last to emocore outfit Rainer Maria’s A Better Version of Me, a minor masterpiece of earnest rock, adult-contemporary-punk division. If the threesome who make up Rainer MariaCaithlin De Marrais on bass and lead vocals, Kyle Fischer on guitar and vocals, and William Kuehn on drumswere any more serious, they’d be a parole board. But even though I find this disc to be a dry, humorless, and pretty much no-fun affair, I have to admit that it’s very good, albeit in an austere kind
De Marrais has a beautiful, unvarnished voice that she could probably project to distant planets, although on only about half these tracks does she use it well. Fischer does an admirable job of keeping the band out of an every-song-sounds-the-same rut, creating walls of U2-like sound on “Artificial Light,” spitting out machine-gun riffs on “Thought I Was,” and lurching through album-closer “Hell and High Water” like a muscle car in stop-and-go traffic. And the rhythm section is superb, kicking into gear on “Save My Skin,” for example, as if the band has come not to praise Led Zeppelin but to bury it. These folks are smart, too, and use big words and everythingimagine a Sarah Lawrence poetry workshop with amplifiers and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from A Better Version of Me. Which makes perfect sense, given that Rainer Maria took its name from a dead Austrian poet, and De Marrais and Fischer really did meet at a college poetry workshop.
Musically, opener “Artificial Light” sets the tone for the remainder of the album, with De Marrais’ vocals soaring over Fischer’s razor-blade guitars and Kuehn’s crashing cymbals. Questionable lyrics (which I’ll get to later) aside, this is emo at its best, by which I mean that it manages to slough off punk’s adolescent snottiness without sacrificing any of its urgency. (Never mind that the adolescent snottiness was what I liked best about punk in the first place.) But my favorite is the droning “The Seven Sisters,” on which Fischer’s storms of feedback provide the perfect accompaniment to De Marrais’ ethereal voice and then build to a crescendo that makes me want to believe I’ll continue to play this disc even after I’ve finished writing this review.
Unfortunately, on several other cuts”Save My Skin” in particularDe Marrais’ vocals come off sounding overwrought and/or overearnest. Her stilted phrasing also mars the stately “Ceremony” and reaches pomp-rock levels of pretentiousness on the overproduced “Spit and Fire.”
But the disc’s biggest problem isn’t De Marrais’ occasionally clunky phrasing; it’s the lyrics, which have the dubious distinction of being simultaneously pretentious, wooden, and dumb. Take the chorus of “Artificial Light”: “No one defies artificial light.” And she quickly follows that line with what may well be the most awkwardnot to mention dumbestrhetorical question in the history of rock: “Why is this technology an anathema to me?” Jeez, I don’t know, but God save us should Rainer Maria ever decide to vent its hatred of, say, trash compactors. Because we’ll undoubtedly be treated to something like “Why do I find this nifty, time-saving kitchen appliance so aesthetically repulsive?”
“Artificial Light” isn’t the only song on A Better Version of Me bedeviled by lyrics that sound as if they had come hot off the pen of a sophomore drama major. I really like the fascinating catalog that is “The Contents of Lincoln’s Pockets,” but the song gets fatally sidetracked by yet another rhetorical question: “Slammed to the back of your head/You’ve never been hit before/How can you deal with that kind of information?” I’m no expert, but it seems to me that a bullet to the brain is hardly the kind of “information” its recipient has to worry about “dealing with.”
That said, sometimes the highfalutin verse actually works. It does on “Ceremony,” in which De Marrais sings, “Maybe there’s a ceremony/Written down inside the body/Where maybe no one/Maybe no one ever sees.” (If only she’d dropped the line about eyelids “shining with headache and perspiration.”) And the words also make do on “The Seven Sisters” (“I am a constellation cut out in the sky/And if I have stopped burning will you know in your lifetime?”), although they’re not nearly as eloquent as the music that accompanies them.
And ultimately, it’s the music that saves A Better Version of Me. Because even though the lyrics are too labored and De Marrais’ voice is occasionally too precious for its own good, the guitars and drums are there to remind us that this is still rock ‘n’ roll we’re dealing with. The euphoric racket that is “Hell and High Water” is the only message rock need ever deliver; everything else is so much propaganda. And just listen to the way Kuehn attacks the cymbals: It sounds as if he’s trying to shake the very foundations of the worldor at least rattle every window on the block. You can call it pointless, but his bashing carries a message as important as any of the ones crammed down our throats by any number of musical do-gooders. It’s a din-for-din’s-sake business, folks, and when it’s done right, salvation is in the beat and the chords. Which is why “Louie, Louie” still means more to me than anything Rainer Maria Rilke ever wrote. CP