These days, a poet's gotta be sly. Perhaps even disingenuous. We don't take poetry of the old quatrain, quatrain, couplet stripe too well anymore. Despite Saul Williams and Thien-Bao Phi, it still smacks to most of required course. Ask that kid in the corner at Muddy Waters who his favorite poet is. His answer is more likely on Rawkus than City Lights.
Poetry's assimilation into hip hop and the quasi-MC battle of the slam has been its craftiest survival method of late. Now, Midwestern literati Rainer Maria are mixing an iambic sensibility with the squelch of a guitar and finding a grateful audience.
"We're not trying to proselytize on behalf of literature or anything," Kyle Fischer tells me from a cell phone in between tour stops at The Knitting Factory in Hollywood and The Fillmore in San Francisco. "The thing that allows people to approach the music despite our sometimes highbrow stance is the music itself. It's rock 'n' roll--it's a pretty democratic art form."
Liberal-arts programs have launched a thousand indie rock bands, but Rainer Maria have roots in the classroom itself. The band formed in Madison in 1995 when Fischer, who had recently left the Fugazi-inspired band Ezra Pound with drummer William Kuehn, met Caithlin De Marrais in a University of Wisconsin--Madison poetry workshop. Fischer and Kuehn had written a few new songs and were searching for a bassist. When De Marrais and Fischer realized they were the only ones attending their class's extra evening sessions, they began to use the time to write poems that would turn into Rainer Maria songs. Before long, De Marrais moved into the band's practice space and became an official member.
But her voice quickly became more important than her bass, creating a new dynamic when combined with Fischer's vocals and his then-prominent guitar. Within six weeks, the group produced a demo, and quickly went through the initial run of 350 cassettes.
Now, six years and umpteen all-ages shows later, Rainer Maria have reached No. 1 on the CMJ top 200 with their third LP, A Better Version of Me. The wordsmith's approach is evident in the well-crafted and concise lyrical tone that plays nicely against Fischer's ever-maturing soundscape. Artfully balanced, the record is bookended by its two best songs: A glimmering guitar introduces the first track, "Artificial Light," and the culmination of De Marrais's album-long identity crisis ends the affair on "Hell and High Water." "The Seven Sisters," in the middle of the record, offers Fischer's most graceful guitar work, twirling and shimmering for six-plus minutes.
The theme of self-actualization and a mood of cautious optimism set A Better Version of Me apart from standard woe-is-me fare: A breakup record it's not. "The previous two [albums] were very relationship-oriented, with two vocals--a sort of me-and-you record," says Fischer. "This record is more like Caithlin's record; her vocal comes to the forefront."
Sexuality remains indelible, however, in both sound and nomenclature. Rainer Maria Rilke, the early 20th-century German symbolist poet who serves as the band's namesake, encountered tension between the masculine and feminine from the beginning. Rilke's mother called him Sophia and dressed him as a girl until the age of five. Five years later, his stern father sent him to St. Polten, a military academy in Austria. Despite--or perhaps because of--this sexually bipolar upbringing, Rilke found success in the world of letters and became historically significant by inventing the object poem. Fischer says the band originally selected part of the poet's name only for its resonant quality. But in the next breath, he admits: "When you name something, there's an extent to what you take under your own control, and there's an extent to which the name itself inscribes its own something."