As the only female-fronted band of significance to fit, even uncomfortably, under the emo umbrella, Brooklyn-via-Madison’s Rainer Maria have never quite caught the media-driven jet stream ridden by former touring partners Rilo Kiley, even though anyone drawn to Jenny Lewis’s fraught portrayals of relationships could find similar pleasures in those voiced by RM bassist-frontwoman Caithlin De Marrais. Some of this neglect stems from the band’s slow disengagement from anti-pop strictures: A talent for sustained tunes emerged on 2001’s A Better Version of Me, but it wasn’t until 2003’s outstanding Long Knives Drawn that singer-guitarist Kyle Fischer’s democratizing interjections were phased out, the better to focus on De Marrais’s glorious vocal belt. Catastrophe Keeps Us Together takes another step away from basement-show aesthetics, trading previous releases’ documentary feel for studio flash courtesy Daniel Lanois/Peter Gabriel engineer Malcolm Burn and (on two tracks) Peter Katis, who brings the huge to Interpol’s work.
At best, this amounts to presenting Fischer’s economical guitar parts in Unforgettable Fire widescreen on “Already Lost” and the prom-ready “Burn.” A delay-drenched take on Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is fresher than Lewis’s recent replication of “Handle With Care,” but elsewhere, clunky acoustic overdubs and vintage-keyboard loops sap the band’s hard-won power trio strengths—the waltz time snippet “Cities Above” (which appears twice) is pretty and creepy enough to make you wish they’d written a song over it. What hasn’t changed, though, is the band’s worldview. Quasi-titular opener “Catastrophe” may be a reworking of a 2000 B side, but the long American moment it describes hasn’t passed: “We’re the architects of the world/We’re taking it all apart.” That announcement of global responsibility and uncertainty shadows every song, and when De Marrais asks, “Where do you end and I begin?” on “Bottle,” there’s no doubt that the question isn’t just about what the last album called “the awful truth of loving.”
Rainer Maria play the Bowery Ballroom May 20 at 8, $15, boweryballroom.com.