Rainer Maria make comfort-food security-blanket rock. They aren't exactly unadventurous; their previous three albums reveled in unconventional song structures and oblique melodies. But these records give off a peaceful, genuine warmth rare in indie rock. Other bands may whine or roar; Rainer Maria sigh.
Some of this warmth can probably be attributed to the longstanding romance of the trio's principal figures, singer/bassist Caithlin De Marrais and singer/guitarist Kyle Fischer. The two have always had what seems like a telepathic connection; Fischer desperately bleats and whispers against De Marrais' soaring howl while the band churns up a messy, intricate web of thrumming guitars and crashing cymbals. This inspired interplay was all over the band's last two nearly perfect albums, 1998's Look Now Look Again and 2000's A Better Version of Me.
But Long Knives Drawn, the group's new album, is different, and, if the rumor mill is to be believed, the relationship between De Marrais and Fischer probably has something to do with these changes. Word around the campfire is that last year De Marrais and Fischer broke up but decided to keep the band going. Rainer Maria haven't gotten all bitter like Quasi or anything, but De Marrais and Fischer do sound more remote than they ever have before. De Marrais contributed to the fairly lackluster solo album Fischer released last year, and Long Knives Drawn sounds almost like De Marrais' solo album. Fischer's vocal contributions are limited to backing duty on a couple of songs. The conversational rawness that drove the previous albums is gone, and the band loses something as a result.
De Marrais is an amazing singer with a gorgeous, expressive voice, but the band's magic has always been in her chemistry with Fischer. The moment on "Broken Radio" (from Look Now Look Again) where the two entirely separate vocal parts merge and cry, "And I'm certain, if I drive into those trees/ It'd make less of a mess than you've made of me") is breathtaking; nothing on Long Knives Drawn quite measures up to it. For the most part, De Marrais carries the record beautifully, singing against the current of the music and working up some powerful catharsis. But parts of the album fall victim to the same folk-rock blandness that dogged Jenny Toomey's Antidote. On "The Double Life," Rainer Maria, for the first time ever, sound trite and thin. It doesn't help matters that Long Knives Drawn is the band's most produced album; at times, it edges perilously close to coffeehouse/boutique background music.
The lack of fiery chemistry between De Marrais and Fischer on Long Knives Drawn may hurt the record, but it doesn't kill it. Musically, Rainer Maria are still one of the most cohesive bands in indie rock, and the frantic, turbulent energy of earlier albums remains in full evidence here. (Their live show, it should be noted, still smokes.) When all the pieces fall together, as on "Long Knives" when the triumphant melody finally emerges from its cocoon, the effect is stunning. Even in diluted form, Rainer Maria remain the rare band capable of being honest, direct, and emotional without resorting to pandering or cliché.
So no, Long Knives Drawn isn't as good as the last two Rainer Maria albums. But it's cold outside, the economy is terrible, and your temp job is empty and dehumanizing. You need this album. It's the musical equivalent of hot chocolate. It will make you feel better.