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Sat, 23 Feb 2008

Artificial Light

This is the first song on the first album of theirs I ever heard.

I discovered Rainer Maria through Back in 2000 or 2001, I was upset that it seemed the only ways to enjoy digital music either involved breaking copyright law (Napster and friends) or handing lots of money to an evil set of corporations (buying new CDs). I heard of eMusic through They Might Be Giants; they put all their music on this "all you can eat" music subscription service. "Fine," I said to myself, "but is there any other music worth staying on this?"

I found the albums A Better Version of Me by Rainer Maria and The Process of Belief by Bad Religion. With those two albums, I thought to myself, I can find a home for myself in the music on this website.

So this is the first song on that 2001 Rainer Maria album. I read a review while listening, and it pointed out the band's intelligence: "No one defies artificial light," the song begins.

I'll cut all your wires
I never cared
Cut all your wires
What can be there? It's dead.

I used to hear, "What can be there instead?" While the review I read praised the band for using the word "anathema" in an opening song, the review failed to mention that they don't use it right! It should be, "Why is this technology anathema to me?" Of course, they compromise with history in performance and sing it that way. (-:

Gosh, writing substance is harder than I thought. Anyway, I like this song because it's about resistance; not in a violent way, but in the self-reflective way of, "What if I stop doing things the way everyone else does?" After all, if only she could get away from it for a while, she "could always breathe [it] back in."

You don't have to be the same as everyone else. You're free to re-imagine the world, and if you can limit your interaction with the world to those parts you agree with, then try doing that. You can always breathe back in.

You can listen to the song if you have it, and you can read the lyrics on the Rainer Maria website.

P.S. The blog doesn't have comments yet. I know, I know; I'm working on it.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the song.

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Whew. It's too late for an entry today.

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Broken Radio

This is the third track on 1999's Look Now, Look Again, the same album as we glimpsed yesterday. This is another favorite from the album. As always, read the lyrics or listen to the song.

This song is light on words. It begins instrumentally and repeats, "Traffic lights turning yellow." (I used to hear "dim and yellow.") We learn a little bit more, "A kiss and a slap on the roof." As it repeats, the listener wonders, "What is this about, and why does she care?"

It turns out the the external action of the traffic light reminds her of the feelings of a personal action. Such reminders are better when you're in a different context than when they happened. This is perhaps the best type: She interrupts a repetition to tell us that she taught it to someone.

Internal repetition for analogy is typical Rainer Maria, and I'm a sucker for it. Here it's about "the last time." (The harmony, not just the phrase, repeats.) That someone is, of course, an ex. Kyle and Caithlin harmonize from "winks out" until the end of the verse. Interestingly, she seems to always hold the note a fraction longer than he does. Maybe that's because she's "lead vocals," or maybe it's because she's the one with the (ever so slightly) greater emotional burden at the end of this relationship.

Kyle drops out and quiets the guitar to let her gush:

And I'm certain, if I drive into those trees,
It'll make less of a mess
then you've made of me.

To deliver words like this convincingly, she takes a breath to switch from her frustrated crescendo to a meek near-whisper for the last line.

The words are over before two minutes are up, and for voices we're left with Kyle and Caithlin harmonizing on "Ooh". This is actually some of Kyle's smoother singing (look at the album called Rainer Maria for other styles of Kyle, including raw screams). The "Oohs" are structured in groups of four. The last in each group is backed by a final-feeling chord, but Kyle and Caithlin vary their harmonies for the others. Maybe she's thinking of the ways things could have been different and how they'd still end the same. The last of these final-feeling chords pushes through the last of these "Oohs," and we're left with a few seconds of silence to think before the next song starts.

What is the "broken radio" that they're talking over? It could be some sort of literal bad communication system (e.g., a distorted cell phone), but to me it seems the two people are sitting right next to each other. As she drives, they try to find words for how feelings changed; as she fails to find words, she understands how hurt she is.

What do you do when you share something like this with someone but then break up? The outside world now gets to poke at the raw wound. Do you focus on making the memory a happy one of how things were or instead on what things could have been? Imagine if there's a decision you made before the break-up about a way to live your life that you now have to recontextualize; before, you could justify in terms of "both of you," but what if it doesn't stand up to justification in terms of just "self"?

This song isn't interested in answering questions like this, just reminding us of how difficult they can be. And as one of the classically sad Rainer Maria songs about failed relationships, it lays no blame.

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"Catastrophe" and "Burn"

Time is running out, so tonight's episode will be a double feature. Rainer Maria's newest (2006) album is called Catastrophe Keeps Us Together. These two songs are "Catastrophe" (read the lyrics and download the song) and "Burn" (read the lyrics and download the song).

These were the two songs they released as previews in the year or so before they actually released the album. "burn-96kbps.mp3" ("First Malcolm mixes") was on their website as a preview for a long time, and "Catastrophe" (the album version) was on their website as a preview too. It's also the song they made the music video for the album out of. So I think Rainer Maria considers them flagship songs on the album. They're tracks 1 and 3 respectively.


"Catastrophe keeps us together," begins and repeats this song. It's also the name of the album. This is the first time that Rainer Maria named an album after a song on it. R.E.M.'s most recent album is the first time they did that, too. I hate to be harsh, but I do think both are the weakest shows so far from both artists.

To me, the song is musically strong but lyrically weak. It's vaguely political, asking:

Do you think we could go on forever
when the architects of the war
are handing out the swords?

But I don't really know what that means. It's as if that is mentioned to explain why "we", "the architects of the world," are "taking it all apart." I can't get a solid grasp on who "we" are. Catastrophe could keep us together if we're going to meet up in the afterlife (c.f., "I'm Gonna DJ at the End of the World" by R.E.M.), or if we're meeting up in this life to fight against those who created the catastrohpe. But there's a sense of leaving the world in "taking it all apart." Not to mention the varied imagery of how we are to find each other "at the end" (x3) of the world.

I've said before I've loved internal rhyme or repeated rhythms in Rainer Maria's sung lyrics. Sadly, this song doesn't get to pluck that string in my heart; the repetition of phrases like "I've got a plan" are easier than intelligent rhythmic tricks of older songs.

Since Chris poointed out that I was focusing on the lyrics, I've been trying to make some notes about the music too. All I'll say is that I really do like the music in "Catastrophe," and the sharpness of the repetitions of "at the end" and "how will you look" contribute to its validity as a head-bopper.


The "original" (read: early cut) "burn-96kbps.mp3" that I heard for a year before hearing the album version is quite a bit shorter. Recently I commended Rainer Maria on being able to stop songs before they drag on, and I'm sorry to see that they didn't use that ability here. "Burn" is four and a quarter minutes, but nearly the last full minute is repetition. They sing it that long in concert, too. Curiously, the "First Malcolm mixes" version I have is only 3:25, nearly eliminating that last whole minute. Curiouserly, the next song on the album is "Bottle", which makes its mark in 2 minutes, 26 seconds, and is no weaker for its short length.

Love starts out as as tyrannical fire led by Caithlin in this song, but in a later verse it is slightly softened to a sorcery. "Believing in her" is tantamount to loving her, but she -- did what, exactly? "Didn't know any better" supports the view that she could have requited the love but didn't see it in time. But "I let you down" implies that she could have acted differently.

I should look into this further, but I get the feeling that the use of simile ("is like a tyranny") and less-than-certain metaphor ("some kind of sorcery") is a much weaker literary style for this band than direct comparison and metaphor.

I really wish that the song's lyrics elaborated on the burning or the ways she let this poor person down. I hope that sometime during this blog, I can make a graph showing this song (and perhaps the album?) as a statistical outlier in how repetitive it is. I admit to loving some Rainer Maria songs with obscure but tragic lyrics, but here there's not enough hints dropped for me to feel as much empathy as before.

As with many Rainer Maria songs, I've built my own meaning. In a comparison to "Hell and High Water," I consider the chance that my variously daily failures are "let[ting] me down," and with too many of them I'll feel helpless and watch myself burn.

More to come

Yesterday I wrote, "Maybe I'm just a kid who wants easy-to-listen-to pop" out of Rainer Maria. Now you hopefully see that's not actually true. (-: You'll hopefully get the sense that while I'm not in love with this album, I'm still happy to have it. Look for more discussion of this album before this blog is over.

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The Awful Truth of Loving

This song is right at the middle of 2003's Long Knives Drawn. With it, this blog moves forward into the twenty-first century. We'll see how long that lasts. You can listen to the song. If you can't follow that link, just go to and sign up for their free trial.

The official lyrics are missing the words in bold and have instead the words in strikeout:

I want it to be sweet, so you won't (don't) disappoint me.

The official lyrics give a message of strength, but that's not the real feeling of the song. Take these questions:

Should I be with you?
Should I forget about me?

The first could be good, but the second one is a terrible idea. It's self-effacing. If "all the new thinking" (a reference to self-help?) "is about individuality," then to counter that you can forget about yourself. But I think that's the wrong approach; for thinking about loving, the opposite of "individuality" is thinking of a couple as two people together. I'm sure a couple of people reading this blog can attest to how doomed a manner of thinking that is.

At the end, in the third repeat of the reprise, I swear I hear this slipped in:

And all that you're thinking
is about individuality.

I like the metaphor of peaches bruised by falling. (So might Christian fundamentalists, I suppose.) It's appropriate for her feelings of powerlessness: she can see the beautiful imagined relationship, but it's never that perfect by the time she gets into it. I also like the internal rhyme, "And by the time / you bide your time."

One of the things that makes the song so great for me is these lines toward the end:

and when the stakes are high
I'm careless with the dice

The singer seems desperate, "pushing [her] luck all the time," but when I sing these lines to myself, I feel empowered. Choosing to be careless with the dice makes me feel like the things that worry me aren't so important, and being able to feel lighter about things helps me worry less and do more. It's also a great line to harmonize against. (-:

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Welcome to Rainer Maria A Day!

I'm going to the last Rainer Maria concert. If you didn't know they're breaking up, you should read about that. Obviously, you can buy tickets for the show I'm going to.

If you don't know who they are, that's what this blog is for. Sure, I could tell you about the origin of their name (a poet, Rainer Maria Rilke), or how they met (they got together in Madison, Wisconsin, at college of course), or how much their music means to me (a lot). But there's no time for that; their last show as a band is December 17, 2006.

Instead, this blog is about Rainer Maria A Day ("RMAD"). Every day before their last show, I'll pick one of their songs and write about it. I'd love to get feedback from fans and others as this goes on.

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Ears Ring

Ears Ring is the first song on Ears Ring EP or the third track on Long Knives Drawn, take your pick. You can, as always, listen to the song and read the lyrics.

Give it a good listen.

Compare it to "Catastrophe." "Catastrophe" plods along; while being the suggested song (indeed, the single) from the album, it starts slow and explains somehow sweetly but intensely, "I've got a plan." I could never feel attached to the song; it feels like there's no real conflict. Instead, "Ears Ring" is about an urgency of a sense of confusion.

Compare it to "Burn." "Ears Ring" knows how to grow, and it knows how to end. The song is short on lyrics, but the way Caithlin stretches the words between breaths and Kyle's fervor let her reveal a scene slowly, letting us imagine feelings we probably already know with enough time to really feel them. The urgency allows it to repeat itself without feeling canned, and the sharp reminders of "love her" at the end jab you only a handful of times before ceasing.

On its own, the song is not just energetic, it's forceful. "Have faith," we're urged at the start. (Who can resist listening for those words when you need something uplifting?) Who is the blue lady? But you hear Caithlin breathe - or with this much music behind her, maybe she's gasping for air. Her performance and Kyle's determined strumming (not to forget William's rhythm)

After a few verses of the urgency, the song drops to half time to plead, "You already love her." (Who can resist listening for these words when you need a push toward a girl?) But how does that intertwine with the stinging arms, the ringing ears of failure?

If there's a vision of a poppy Rainer Maria, even one where reptition is as much a part of life as it is on "Catastrophe" or "Burn," this is the exemplar of how that vision can succeed.

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I'm melting!

I love this song. "I'm melting!" is the last song on 1999's Look Now Look Again. You can read the lyrics or download the song. Turn the volume up when you listen to it.

(Normally I'd link to the official lyrics, but for some reason they're entirely missing.)

Older Rainer Maria songs sometimes, as on "Rise" (the first track on this album), have the vocals cover the full range from "timid" to "soft". Instead, this song starts with a bang and keeps it up; the drum hit before the guitar starts makes me think of someone taking a deep breath before loudly making known all the things she had been holding back from saying. I can see her chatting politely with some boy who thinks some other girl is prettier (*) when her firey eyes open suddenly to let him know that she's been cheated out of a conversation anyone could care about.

In a show of personal strength rarely seen (and therefore deeply appreciated) in Rainer Maria, she sings verse and verse feeling dramatically more involved than this loser.

I'm dying from only
listening to you,
and though I smile,
it's just because I want to like you.

The feigned happiness of greeting was stretched so long she had to snap and write this song.

It's not just "more involved" that she feels; she's putting in effort in the conversation and getting nothing out of it. These lyric captions don't capture the force in her voice. Listen to "only, only" as she sings it. Listen to how it parallels "over, over[whelming]" and "of, of [listening to you]". After either stuttering or emphatically repeating these, she screams, "Though I'm quiet, I'll find my voice tonight." Whether that means actually telling it to this guy or finding someone else she actually enjoys talking to we don't know.

The activity (would you describe it as scattered, and then collected, in two or three measure blocks?) on the guitar and drums throughout the first part of the song is tremendously energizing. You hear an echo of the style in the "Take me out... I'll melt" section, but it's almost as if the energy from the vitriol of the first half has healed; she has changed her message from screaming in pent-up agony-turned-rage to a self-assured "Yes, I'm like this."

I love the song's structure. The similarity between "overwhelming you with lies" and "only listening to you" is hammered home in the stylistic similarities I mentioned earlier. It's easy to lose the words in the music and the rhythm of her vowel repetition. (It actually took me quite a few years to get the lyrics down in the right order.)

"I can be so cold sometimes" leads to a great crescendo which quiets down to a whisper from the guitar. It grows, and grows, and she declares, "Take me out, and I'll melt."

What does it mean to melt here? The sentence is almost a threat; "take me out" to meet people and I'll put up a facade of trying to like them until I lash out at them? For me, the song can be a reminder of how, despite any naysayers, you really are as exciting a person as you once felt. You don't need any justification, and if they're not appreciating you, you can just drop them. It does serve as a terrible song to think about when meeting people at a party, however.

Even as the song ends on this more mellow note, which I summarized above as, "Yes, I'm like this," the guitar is unfailing in maintaining its pitch and fervor as it ends the album. By no means is such self-empowering energy indicative of the album; as one of Rainer Maria's best albums, it covers a mix of deeply recognizable feelings. With the ability to look back over their career since then, the solo female voice on this song foreshadows songs like "Ears Ring" from 2003 and most of their new album, Catastrophe Keeps Us Together. Contrast that to Kyle's contributions to the track before it, "Centrifuge." Also, contrast this last song on an album to "Hell and High Water" on 2001's A Better Version of Me.

Other favorite songs of mine by Rainer Maria leave me introspective or pensive. Many Rainer Maria lines I love depict the singer holding the broken pieces of something she loves in her hands and wonder if it can be put back together. Not this one; this is a trip of well-justified self-importance. I really hope they play it on Sunday! (And I hope they feel energetic and happy enough to pull off playing it.)

(P.S. Yes, I know, this post is a little late. Sorry about that.)

(*. As a matter of record, Caithlin has no shortage of prettiness.)

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Rain Yr Hand

This song appears on Rainer Maria's eponymous E.P. ("Rainer Maria") from 1997. You can read the lyrics or download the song. As always, I urge you to do both.

For what it's worth, R.E.M. made fun of this term "eponymous" by naming a collection of theirs literally, Eponymous.

I'm going to take a step away from formula for today's entry because my life has been so busy with schoolwork at the end of the semester and I'm doing this blog as much for me as for any of you readers (-:. It will be interesting when work has real time boundaries (9 to 5, or more like 10 to 6) rather than school's ability to leak into my whole day and pervade my waking and sleeping moments. These blog entries are just getting longer, but that's fine with me. (-:

This song isn't one of my favorites, but for this Rainer Maria A Day it's crucial to revisit some of Rainer Maria's earlier catalog. Rainer Maria is widely-cited as beginning when the two singers met at a poetry workshop while in college, and this E.P. from 9 years ago is the earliest work I have of theirs. Maybe I'm just a kid who wants easy-to-listen-to pop rather than the screaming and distortion and dissonance of their early work. Songs like this are difficult to explain to parents or friends, so maybe I just avoided them so I could more easily defend my love for Rainer Maria. Rainer Maria was something of a secret love of mine, and that definitely contributed to my tenderness for their music.

Even with all the distortion, songs on this E.P. like "Made in Secret" and our main topic, "Rain Yr Hand," show the versatility of the band. Listen to how the end of "Made in Secret" has a totally different feel, a softness appropriate for the closing line, "This is a secret I haven't told to anyone." "Portland" finishes quietly, too; this young and proud, Rainer Maria doesn't feel forced to fill the space with music. "Rain Yr Hand", too, opens gentle.

The lyrics to this song (as with most of the album) are hard to understand, much harder than in their 1999-and-after work. (Recall that the 1999 album A Better Version of Me was my introduction to Rainer Maria.) Here, they're either screaming, whispering, or mumbling, it seems. I would say Rainer Maria is very unlikely to play anything from this album at a show. Listen to how this song uses sharp twists on the guitar (unless that really is Caithlin screaming...?) at the end of instrumental interludes to let the style change between verses. When your most recent work has packed-with-sound songs like "Catastrophe" and songs with poppy crescendos and tempo shifts like "Burn," I don't think the new audience would be expecting any of this. And maybe the band members themselves feel they've moved on to more exciting pastures, too. When you consider richness of sound from Caithlin and the music from Kyle's guitar in more recent work, it's as if they learned to sing and play respectively, after all. But I appreciate that in this album, half the songs are under three minutes, and they stop not abruptly but because simply because the songs succeeded at imparting a feeling.

This summer, while an intern at Creative Commons, I missed out on more than a few events because I wasn't 21 (yet; I now am). "All-ages shows" indeed.

The words aren't vague; they set a scene where we understand the feeling being communicated. The quiet introduction is appropriate for talking about deep, easily-mockable processes like identity formation. To quote a Witness Theatre play I saw recently (that I recently quoted when I felt I wasn't being taken seriously enough), "I'm being vulnerable!". You might would wonder about the tree fallen across the highway, but Rainer Maria songs are more about sharing a feeling as they are about inspiring thought. They've never been about inspiring action. Maybe Bad Religion's capacity at the latter is what made the two of them such a powerful combination when I first discovered them.

As I alluded to yesterday, you get to hear Kyle in his most singing-y mode around 2:30, and you can hear both him and Caithlin near-screaming at different parts. So much of what I read of the band watches Kyle's voice fade away as the band becomes more polished. In 1997, they don't mind distorting the final chord.

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Hell and High Water

"Hell and High Water" is one of my favorite Rainer Maria songs. It, too, is on A Better Version of Me (2001). In fact, for a while, I thought it was called "A Better Version of Me". You can read the lyrics on the Rainer Maria website and, if I've given you the password, listen to the song.

I know I should just drop everything and let her sing
She's a better version of me

I used to hear, "and let her think she's a better version of me."

The song is about a girl "who'll pick up where I leave off." Is the girl in the song imagined or real? Is the singer's love being stolen by a girl "devising a better mouth just to kiss you"? Instead, maybe the singer is just trapped in her feelings of inadequacy. The girl in seems too perfect to be real; how could she sort through the singer's memories? Could she really have "never forgotten a name or a punchline"? She's at once "picking her fights like she knows how to win them" and would be "brave when I run off"; she's an unstoppable force in her life. Wouldn't that be nice to be?

I don't understand the line about speeders killing you on their tiny street; maybe it's a metaphor for how easily people rushing through life can feel like they're running you over. In that vein, you can imagine businessmen in suits who "know what they want" nearly running over a thoughtful pedestrian.

Another question: In the quoted two lines above, is "She's a better version of me" what the girl is singing? Or, instead, is watching the other girl sing enough to make the singer resigned to her inadequacy? I always liked the pun, "I'm lost but she's found"; it's the same kind of pun.

The message of the song is the question, Do I resign myself to desperation and dream of a better version of myself?

There's not really an answer, but after a long song of self-doubt, the singer tries to reassure herself:

I tell myself, You're not a fool.

I like this song because I can summarize hope to myself by singing, "You're not a fool." Sometimes I even believe it.

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