Revenge of the Nerds
Caithlin De Marrais is afraid she sounds like a dork. "You know how MTV has those shows that have little snippets of other music in it?" she sheepishly asks on the phone from her home in Connecticut. "Just recently, a song from our new album was on during the Top 100 Pop Songs of All Time thing." She takes a breath. "So the Backstreet Boys are talking, and then one of our songs comes on, and it was really funny." A laugh makes its way to the surface. "That kind of stuff is hysterical to me."
Her giggle is flecked with the kind of hesitance you'd expect from a woman surprised to hear herself intro a video by Prince or the Beatles or Tommy Tutone, but it's also colored by the resolve typical of someone who's seen all the way through the looking glass. De Marrais did, and she saw A Better Version of Me, the album she just made with her band, Rainer Maria. The band's third (and best) album is a flush-faced yelp of longing and self-doubt and wanderlust set to tightly wound, densely melodic pop songs. A functional diary of the Big Ideas that twentysomething poetry-reading types find scrawled on their insides every night, it's remarkably earnest music, quite a bit like the sound of your past catching up with your present, or your ego staking out your id. That's why De Marrais laughs when MTV plays it.
"I think there's a need for mass media to have pieces of not just the latest Britney Spears," she says, trying to explain how a trio of geeky white kids determined to "open up your chest and put my hand inside," can compete for airtime with a guy who'd rather just get a good look at your thong.
"The attention we're getting seems kind of natural at this point," she continues, "because there's so many people looking for new music right now." She's right, of course -- how else would you explain Napster? -- but are they really looking for the overtly emotional ("emo" is so first-quarter 2000) indie rock that Rainer Maria's selling? Could be. The band, which also includes guitarist Kyle Fischer and drummer William Kuehn, has spent the last five years building an impressive underground reputation as a dramatic live act, one given to bouts of sensual tension (De Marrais and Fischer are involved) and gymnastic catharsis. Look Now Look Again, the band's well-received 1999 album, simmered with a similar friction. For De Marrais, that physicality is an effective extrapolation of the words flying from her mouth.
"I just saw Blonde Redhead at the Bowery Ballroom" in New York City, she gushes, "and I was incredibly blown away at the way they were able to move around but also have contact between the two front people. Not just jumping around off the walls, but I don't know how to describe it, but it was incredibly visceral. She would reach out and grab his hair or something, and you were like, 'Oh, my God!' "
De Marrais has yet to yank Fischer's locks in a fit of passion, but the couple does share a palpable connection in front of an audience, engaging in a lyrical and sonic tug-of-war that -- straight up -- will make you miss your old Fleetwood Mac albums.
"When you watch music so much," De Marrais says, "people are just standing around, whether it's the audience or the band, too. But to have that body conversation going on on stage is incredible. Kyle and I have talked about this a lot, because he had this dilemma between wanting to use his body thoroughly throughout the whole performance and standing really still and playing everything exactly perfect with restraint. And we quickly realized that that's really boring. I do a lot of dance and other body work, and in order to sing, I have to use my face and whatever. There's a part of me that needs to be summoned to really project my voice."
That mysterious part is at the heart of the better version of De Marrais the album implicitly (and on closer "Hell and High Water," explicitly) describes; yet for the album, the band chose to play down the couple's unique vocal interaction.
"The vocal-writing process was really different," De Marrais explains, "and I think Kyle was kind of like, 'Take the reins a little bit more.' I almost feel a little bit worried that I'm disappointing people -- like, 'Oh, can my voice not carry the songs?' or whatever. It's stuff that we have talked about over and over and over, and it just really was what was naturally happening."
You get the sense from much of A Better Version of Me that Rainer Maria talks a lot. There's a bookworm lurking somewhere inside the band (somewhere being, well, everywhere): It makes its presence known in songs such as "Contents of Lincoln's Pockets," in which Fischer itemizes just that. Or in "Artificial Light," the record's bombastic opener, in which De Marrais spits out "anathema" without cracking a grin. They've got a way of making it work -- that De Marrais and Fischer first locked eyes in the front row of a University of Wisconsin poetry class provides some explanation -- but it's those literary aspirations that may hold the band back from actually getting a video played on MTV instead of an eight-second snippet: Thong songs don't take kindly to four-syllable words. Still, De Marrais is too busy counting couplets and quatrains to care.
"I have no interest in becoming an image," she insists, "like this two-dimensional thing that people think they can relate to, you know? I think we're already in this position where some people think, 'Wow, you're big.' And then there's plenty of people who are like, 'Who the hell are you?' But it's nice to be treated well, to have people respect your music because they've heard it already, as opposed to the days when we were getting paid $10 and seven cigarettes. Moving away from that is all right with me."
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