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Listening to Rainer Maria’s emotional pop songs is like reading one of those hyperpersonal ‘zines people scatter around to be picked up and read by strangers: They pull you in and repel you at the same time. If you can get through the achy, all-too-honest insights traded between a couple of terminal romantics, you’ll find occasional moments of brilliance—but you can never be sure that what you hear is really any of your business.

Look Now Look Again marks the second full-length release from the Madison, Wis., trio and continues to open the window on the relationship between bassist Caithlin De Marrais and guitarist Kyle Fischer. And like any growing ‘zine worth its pulp, Look Now Look Again shows significant progress—slicker production, more complex writing, and all-around more daring experiments in indie pop.

In the past, De Marrais and Fischer were given to screaming the same lines in unison; it was the most Rainer Maria ever made of its dueling-male-female vocal potential. Quirky harmonies popped up now and then, but only when one of them (usually Fischer) went charmingly off key. But on Look Now Look Again, De Marrais takes over nearly all of the lead vocal duties, and for the most part, this seems like her album. From the sparsely packed opening track, “Rise,” the record positions De Marrais’ singing as the central element, and her comfort level with her own voice seems to have increased tenfold: She’s learned to convey a wider range by tempering her fitful emotional peaks. On “Rise,” she conscientiously ditches malaise for meditation, reworking a line from Eric Frost’s The Pruning Diaries to advise: “Devise a way of saving your words./Say nothing if it’s forced./’For each inch cut, the roots grow ten/Where we can’t see them.’” It’s a lesson in subtlety that most emo bands never quite grasp, although the effect is debatable.

The emotional outbursts that punctuated the band’s previous LP, Past Worn Searching (as on the arresting opening lines of “Tinfoil”—”God damn it! I’m not talking about my heart like a tinfoil Valentine”), are almost completely absent here—which is not always for the best. Rainer Maria has grown into the open tunings and only-slightly-rocking guitar sound now favored by similarly minded emo-scene bands like Ethel Meserve, Mineral, and Grander, and already it’s becoming formulaic. Rainer Maria is at its best when De Marrais couples that formula with gentle lyrical abstraction rather than adolescent proclamations of love and longing, but some of the old spirit is lost with her newfound maturity. Kernels of influence from more adventurous contemporaries like Chicago’s Joan of Arc are apparent in the music and lyrics of tracks like “Lost, Dropped and Canceled” (“Expect me like one waits for rain/Or sleet or hail/Or snowfall”), but Rainer Maria—the aspiring Rilke to Joan of Arc’s would-be e.e. cummings—is never playful enough to pull off such lightness. Observations like “I want to go to faraway places, but/Momentum makes my head/Ponderous and heavy” reveal graver ambitions.

In the year and a half since the release of Past Worn Searching, Rainer Maria has been touring almost incessantly (with multiple stops in D.C.), and the album reflects the effects of both momentum and impermanence of place in a number of ways. For one, the band is playing tighter than ever and commanding a broader frame of musical references, with more pop to its punk and more harmony to its hardcore. And whereas the content was always heavy on love laments, it shifts on this outing to include ruminations on De Marrais’ newly acquired insomnia—which reads like a side effect of perpetual touring. On “Planetary,” De Marrais even manages to pull off a telling story of an up-all-night love life on the open road: “The skyline is two gazes long./I crane my neck/To take it all in,/And bump my head/Against the windshield….”

Fischer and De Marrais mix up the vocal duties most compellingly on the album’s highlight, “Breakfast of Champions,” weaving a complex lyrical round grounded on the line “Cup of tea, blackberry,/Everything’s alright now./Don’t let me sleep,” as drummer William Kuehn drives the band in and out of another insomnia-induced frenzy. For that one song, the band’s two-singer system is utterly justified; absent are the in-sync howl-alongs of Past Worn Searching and the misty wisps of Fischer’s backing vocals found elsewhere on the present album.

But Rainer Maria is pretty much back to its old self again when Fischer takes the lead on “The Reason the Night Is Long” (again, the insomnia), rocking out more fully than on the rest of this album. Kuehn supplies a snare-heavy march beat, Fischer croons off key, and when De Marrais joins him in a near-scream as the song builds to its midpoint breakdown, it’s like finding goofy greatness in the romantic musings of somebody’s overly expository ‘zine. But the moment quickly sours when Fischer belts out cornball lyrics like “Honey, I confess, I stole your heart/And honey, I confess that it was criminal/But I’ve been captured, I’m paralyzed/And I’ve been disarmed by your charm.” Just the kind of mild embarrassment you can expect from the naive abandon of ‘zines—or the music of a band whose members read way too many of them. CP