Rainer Maria can be likened to a small planet wracked by the violence of its own creation. Huge forces pulled and pummeled its fiery genesis. In time, such worlds must by necessity cool and settle. Great volcanic events and deep continental rifts will give way to a gentler, flatter terrain — providing more accessibility yet correspondingly less diversity. This isn’t necessarily a lamentable state of affairs; I mean, the cooler, more mature planet Earth ain’t such a bad place now, is it?
Okay, that analogy is way too dramatic for what amounts to a pretty decent (if unwilling) representative of that much-maligned sub genre of American heartland indie rock: emo. But it does describe a process in which Rainer Maria’s music has gradually evolved from a dangerous, poetic kind of incandescence into its current warmer approachability. Long Knives Drawn is their most accessible record yet. There are moments of turbulence and discord, to be sure, but this is a much more serene landscape in which to travel. Almost completely gone are the stormy interplays between Caithlin DeMarrais’ and Kyle Fischer’s twin barrel vocals, and even the latter’s shattered-glass guitar dissonance is less prominent than on earlier works, wrapped up now in fuzzier gauze. The melodically unpredictable has been sacrificed for a more conventional “big rock” sound.
Having said that, the opener does its damnedest to prove me wrong. “Mystery and Misery” is a sprawling, jumpy live wire of a song — DeMarrais’ vocals riding the risky border that divides righteous anger from plain hectoring, and William Kuehn treating his tumultuous toms and hissing cymbals like spinning plates. Fischer’s guitar is a joyous wall of distortion beneath all this high-end noise, and when DeMarrais exclaims, with a ragged flourish, “You look so wicked / Ah-oww so wicked”, her brim-full passion is (a)rousingly convincing.
Incidentally, the cover art depicts floral print dresses and pretty aprons alongside some deadly looking kitchen knives, a not-too-subtle juxtaposition of some stereotypical gender extremes. Without getting overly Freudian, such contrasts inform Rainer Maria’s ethos, and DeMarrais’ growing confidence as a singer has increasingly asserted the nu-feminine (vulnerably brash) in uneasy balance with the traditionally (pounding rhythms, wailing guitars) masculine.
Some of the precious intellectualism and journal entry confessionalism has been diluted too, in favour of greater immediacy. The first band to (allegedly) sing the word “anathema” can now express some of the pain of relationship dynamics in more direct ways, such as “Let’s get over each other / So that we can fall in love again” (“Long Knives”), which will undoubtedly appeal to a wider audience. “Ears Ring” is also a remarkably present and lushly melodic pop-punk song: “Strange how the ears ring / After a night of wrongdoing”.
The weight of expectations built by this opening threesome does tend to smother the rest of the album, however. A kind of stasis descends after their complex traces, and subsequent big rock blends into ho-hum folk rock seamlessly, as if these mid-record songs represent the endless prairie after the wild and jagged coastal ranges. Songs like “The Awful Truth of Loving” and “The Double Life” are not so much offensive as disappointing, cowering guiltily in the considerable shadows thrown by the first three songs. “The Imperatives” picks up to some extent, with some affecting guitar plaints, varied tempo changes and poignantly exuberant vocals, although some of the words can be a tad excruciating. Edge-like guitar harmonics ring across the elevated amphitheatre rock of the otherwise underwritten “Floors”, and “CT Catholic” is diluted summertime blues confectionery — foot-tappingly listenable yet ultimately ordinary, driving bass beneath ear candy guitar, a thrashing drum maelstrom and affably likeable vocals.
Just when it seems the album will gallop headlong into a pleasant but dusty rock’n’roll sunset, however, a cool watering hole appears to break the dry spell. After the early Kristin Hersh stridency, through a species of Kirsty MacColl faux earnestness, DeMarrais suddenly pulls up on the reins and delivers some not-so-distant cousin of Sinéad’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, in the form of the closing “Situation: Relation”. This final ballad is as jarring as a cold dip in a desert, coming as it does right after the wide expanses of the clone-rock middle section, but it’s no less welcome for that. Initially throwaway simple, further spins elicit an aching loss drifting below the quietly picked electric guitar and a feathery yearning haunting the understated lines: “This is like a first marriage / And you and me together / Can be like divorcées”. The consistent draining of exuberance as the record ticks off its 35-minutes is a little alarming, but the quiet simple beauty of this closing song is at least somewhat ameliorating.
This is ultimately one of those half full/half empty situations. What Rainer Maria have lost in scope and audacity they have perhaps gained in sheer accessible melodicism and urgency on Long Knives Drawn. This big sky sound is at once wider and paradoxically narrower, but play this record at high volume and it does itself plenty of justice. It is an assured piece of music, less apt to trip over its own feet than previously, but Rainer Maria’s occasional klutziness was one of their strong points. In finding such soaring balance, they might well have let slip that very gauche coltishness that made them so endearingly distinct among the other herd-like emo bands they’ve been unfairly corralled with up till now.