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Rainer Maria - Ears Ring EP

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Artist: Rainer Maria

Album: Ears Ring EP

Label: Polyvinyl

Review date: Dec. 8, 2002

It's All In The Details

Post-punk (and punk, for that matter) has always been burdened by the creating and editing of new and more microscopic sub-genres, forever compartmentalizing and labeling various strands of loud guitar rock. There are obvious downsides, ranging from band dissatisfaction with being pidgeonholed to confusion and misinformation for the record-buyer. It can also result in endlessly tedious record reviews that revolve around either A) An explanation of said musical sub-genre, or B) A review circling around the band's dismissal of said sub-genre. Of all recent such sub-genres, few were argued about and dissected with more disdain (from writers) and resentment (from bands) than that of "emo", a term which now registers with an only slightly lower level of cultural embarrassment than "Hammer pants". Apart from anything else, the tag was hopelessly meaningless; Spin published a high-profile article on the genre, naming such bands as the Promise Ring, Dashboard Confessional, and Rainer Maria; it also cited Fugazi as one of the sound's originators. Apart from anything else, the article made clear that any genre that was meant to include both Fugazi and the simpering wet blankets of Dashboard Confessional was at best pointless, and at worst, vaguely offensive.

Rainer Maria have taken a fair amount of flack in their day, and despite (or perhaps due to) their steadily rising popularity, they have accrued a relatively high amount of disdain from both indie scenesters and other bands. They were lumped into the "emo" bandwagon due to their penchant for nakedly emotional, occasionally off-key singing, poetic leanings, and the bespectacled nature of much of their audience. A quarter-century on from punk's inception, however, what seems to matter most is the details, and despite the surface similarities shared by bands, innovation on a small scale is what distinguishes the music and allows certain people to rise above mere genre simplifications. Fugazi, Sleater-Kinney, and Superchunk all make music with loud guitars and fast tempos, but their respective sounds couldn't be more different, and they've all carved out a unique and lasting niche for themselves.

Rainer Maria haven't reached that level yet, but they're getting there, and with people momentarily less interested in genre classification, now could be their time to shine. There has been a steady increase in both their sonic sophistication and songwriting, moving towards a tighter band sound, looser, more textured guitars, and most importantly, Caithlin De Marrais' singing. Her voice was always the band's strong suite, but much of their early work involved her and guitarist Kyle Fischer singing together, using the urgency of their vocals to carry the songs forward. They sounded raw, sometimes uncomfortably so, and the approach had its successes, but the band rightly sensed that it only had a limited potential. Fischer began employing more sophisticated guitar playing, and De Marrais quietly began taking on the brunt of the vocal duties, singing almost everything on the band's last album, "A Better Version of Me".

This progression is continued on the Ears Ring EP, a stopgap for their forthcoming full-length. Here, on the opening title track, the band sounds tighter and somehow messier at the same time, unafraid to leave some rough edges. It's faster and more punk-sounding than much of the last album, and it features a much more esoteric lyrical approach, which is all to the song's benefit. Breaking free from more explicitly relationship-themed material, the song is carried by the strength of De Marrais' delivery and the band's ability to create a real sense of immediacy. Fischer's guitar is all over the place, sometimes thick and noisy, at others spiky and darting. The other songs, "Alchemy" and "Automatic Beauty", which are not on the album, aren't as strong, but still offer an intriguing new direction for the band. The former is angular, vaguely discordant punk; the latter, while sounding alarmingly like the Barenaked Ladies in its opening bars, is actually a solid, jumpy pop song that mostly relies on the interplay of Fischer and De Marrais' vocals.

There is still work to be done, but Rainer Maria have produced music with enough consistency and originality to at least be judged on their own merits. As we are swamped with more Strokes clones in the next few months, it will pay to keep an eye on bands who have been around long enough to mark out their own sound and choose their own paths, for surely one of the worst aspects of genres and "scenes" is that they erase the distinctions that exist between different bands' sounds. This EP is proof that Rainer Maria have done that and are potentially on to some interesting, undiscovered places.

By Jason Dungan

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