Long Knives Drawn
The folks over at Polyvinyl Records are getting sneaky. They know the old adage that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and tricky cats that they are, they’ve capitalized on this idea.
Their recent Rainer Maria promo package turned out to be a veritable cornucopia of related goods: the new Rainer Maria LP, Long Knives Drawn on white colored vinyl (oh, pretty), a 7″ of their song “Hell and High Water”, a CD EP reprint of the long deleted first EP, New York: 1955, a Polyvinyl sampler CD and… what’s this? I slide away a few stickers and pieces of paper till I see, yes, a handful of cherry Airheads in the bottom of the box. What an underhanded trick. They know I can’t write a scathing album review when enjoying the sweet, sweet taste of a cherry Airhead.
Given their guerrilla review-influencing tactics, I’m still going to do my best to give you a balanced opinion (difficult as it may be), of Rainer Maria’s new album. The Wisconsin trio releases another in their vein of 9 track long albums, a formula that seems to have worked well for them in the past. How does the new album hold up in comparison? Not too shabby, but not without its drawbacks, either.
The album itself feels like a natural extension of 2001’s A Better Version Of Me, with some changes definitely worth mention. The first is the notable absence of Kyle Fischer on vocals. Caithlin De Marrais has grabbed on to the role as front-woman of Rainer Maria with both hands, bringing forth a more commanding voice than on previous outings. Part of this is due to the mixing of this album; the volume levels on her voice are perceptibly raised in relation to the guitar work, which takes a back seat. That guitar work, which had an incredibly abrasive quality to it on the band’s previous work, is by comparison much more polished on this album, though still having that rough edge to it which fits their musical idiom.
Back to the aforementioned vocals, though. It was always standard fare for De Marrais’s singing to be coupled with Fischer’s, creating a boy/girl harmony which had also become something of a Maria trademark. This is absent. While you may still hear a peep here and there from Fischer, it’s particularly soft in comparison to De Marrais’s occasionally overbearing voice. This all ties in to my main problem with Long Knives Drawn: when all is said and done, it’s feels very anti-climactic.
Rainer Maria was never a band built on technical guitar work or catchy hooks, but their brilliance was in their sheer energy. The under-produced sound was archetypical of this style of indie-rock, and was there for the exact purpose of feeling that energy. A verse of light guitar work and breezy vocals were interlaced, leading not-too-subtly to a heavier chorus, very abrasive riffs and vocals being belted out with so much energy as to move you, not with their technical genius, but with overpowering emotion. The crescendo at the end of the aforementioned New York: 1955 is the perfect example of this. The entire song keeps building and building, occasionally dying down for a moment but always hinting toward a big explosion at the end of the song, and when it happens, though expected, it blows you away. This is what is missing from the new album. Lots of build up, but not much delivery. I feel like I’m constantly waiting for a musical explosion to knock me away, but it never comes.
Anyway, I did say this album was fairly satisfying, so let’s move on to some of its finer points. William Kuehn’s drumming has gotten much more advanced, and you can tell he’s really getting a work-out on some of these songs, lending a real foot-tapping quality to certain tunes.
Next would have to be the hooks. As opposed to their older material off of, say, Look Now Look Again, which took what would be otherwise rather ordinary tracks and pumped them with enough energy to make them outstanding, the majority of the songs on Long Knives Drawn seem to be working towards improving the overall quality of the tunes in a much more balanced way. Let’s face it, the hooks within are downright catchy. “CT Catholic” stands out in my mind as having an addictive little riff that permeates the song and I find myself playing it over and over just to hear that catchy intro and verse, then humming it to myself the rest of the day. The title track is another one of these songs that just keeps your head bopping up and down.
It’s not as if this is the first time Maria has had a catchy melody, not in the least. On A Better Version Of Me, tunes like “Hell and High Water” had us humming the chorus while munching on our morning Cheerios. It seems as though they’re making an appeal toward a wider audience, be that good or bad, and it affects the music in that certain way. A not-so-unexpected development in their style, seeming to make it much more approachable.
In the end, Long Knives Drawn is a solid album for what it is. If you’ve gotten used to the older Rainer Maria style, you may be disappointed by the lack of some of those key points that have made Rainer Maria who they are. If you’re new to the band and looking for something a little more forgiving than the harshness of their older albums, Long Knives Drawn may be the place for you to start. Their other albums had a certain quality about them where I’d find myself playing them for hours on end and still feel like I was hearing it for the first time.
Though it will get plenty of attention from me in the future, I just don’t see Long Knives Drawn to be one that will wear my needle out. Like the Miami Dolphins tend to be, good, but not great. And no amount of free candy can change that.
Polyvinyl Records: http://www.polyvinylrecords.com