And I’m certain if I drive into those trees…
It feels a little ridiculous to be getting all emo on a day when United States has finally woken up and is starting to dig itself out of its enormous shitpile, but what the hell, it’s gross outside and Rainer Maria is breaking up.
Sometime in spring 2002, I caught a ride with a couple of friends from Syracuse to Ithaca to see Rainer Maria. They were playing a show at some Cornell student center, and my friends and I spent maybe an hour walking around before we found it. Spring is kind of a big deal in upstate New York. It’s fucking freezing for about eight months a year, and the sky is so permanently grey that it comes as this glorious shock when the first pretty day of the year comes along. People walk around with these dazed looks in their eyes and play frisbee outside with their shirts off even though it’s really like 50 degrees out. There’s absolutely nothing like that first day, but the honeymoon period stretches out from late April to the end of the school year. We were still in that honeymoon period that night, so it felt amazing to be outside walking around this strange campus with no idea where we were going.
Given that both towns are in the exact same virtually unlivable part of the world, Ithaca and Syracuse couldn’t be more different. Syracuse is a dying/dead industry town that seems to be in a permanent recession; only a few toothless homeless people walk around the downtown main drag even in the middle of a work day, and these enormous old falling-apart buildings are everywhere. The only two parts of the town that don’t look burned-out and apocalyptic are the enormous mall and Syracuse University, which is a weird architectural hodgepodge with beautiful hundred-year old gothic buildings sitting right next to nasty-ass 70s brutalist monstrosities. I only went down to Ithaca a couple of times, but it actually looks like an idyllic little northern town in the Gilmore Girls mode: pedestrian-walkway mainstreets with quaint old shops everywhere and beautiful mountainous ridges all over the place. Cornell is an Ivy League school, and it looks like it, which means it’s a whole lot prettier than Syracuse.
And so it was this amazing novelty to come to this utopian place, especially since Rainer Maria was pretty much the opposite of all the bands we’d see in Syracuse. Syracuse is a notorious hardcore hotbed, and so most of the shows would be violent matinee gruntfests, many of which were admittedly a whole lot of fun. Rainer Maria was a band with a female leader and a pretentiously literary name and songs where the voices and guitars roiled and thrummed and pushed against each other, not violently but desperately, like all these bits and pieces were hanging onto each other for dear life. It all sounds a bit cloying now, and I’ve gotten into the habit of skipping their songs when they come up on my iPod, but it was about the most comforting thing in the world at the time. The band got called emo a lot, and I’m sure they probably hated it, but the term was totally accurate. They came along during the genre’s second or third wave, when it stripped itself off from hardcore and morphed into this woozy, scraggly strain of indie-rock with gargle-howling singers and fuzzed-out guitars and messed-up time-signatures and impenetrable lyrics about, like, heartbreak. People would call Superchunk and Modest Mouse and Burning Airlines emo, which is a bit hard to imagine now. But Rainer Maria stood apart from Jimmy Eat World and Braid and Sunny Day Real Estate and all the others because they were actually pretty. Caithlin de Marrais had this airy yowl that just floated over all their push-pull dynamics and worked as a perfect foil to Kyle Fischer’s strangulated shriek, which sounded a lot more traditionally emo. And the two of them were an actual couple in a long-term relationship, but the songs would obliquely mention breakups, so we always had the sense that they were actually singing about each other. Around the time we saw them at Cornell, the couple actually broke up and set off a whole lot of rumors about why. The band also moved from Wisconsin to Brooklyn and started making relatively safe and boring records like 2003’s Long Knives Drawn, which I think was the first album I ever reviewed for a website and which I thrashed around trying to defend even though I didn’t really like it that much.
But that album wasn’t out yet when we saw them at Cornell, and they were great: fiery and physical where their records were dour and mopey. They actually danced onstage, Fischer throwing himself against the kids by the side of the stage and de Marrais doing these weird hopscotch step-jumps. After the show, I came up with some lame pretense to start a conversation with de Marrais (I think I asked her about books or some shit like that), and she ended up inviting all of us back to the show’s afterparty, where we stole most of their beer and acted all starstruck. I’ve met or interviewed a ton of musicians since then, many of whom have made music that I’ve loved as much as or more than my two favorite Rainer Maria records (Look Now Look Again and A Better Version of Me), but I’ll always love the memory: my Syracuse people being treated like old friends in a strange city by a band we loved.
When the band released Catastrophe Keeps Us Together earlier this year on the disgustingly-named label Grunion, I’m not sure I realized that they still existed. The album is pretty good, but it doesn’t sound much like the band I remember. Fischer’s vocals are gone altogether, and de Marrias sings with a calm fluidity. Musically, it’s totally competent indie-rock, thick and jangly. I listened to it a couple of times and liked it, but I never ended up putting it on my iPod. I imagine that’s how a lot of their older fans felt; we did’t feel the same immediate intimacy with the band that we once did, and so we did’t pay their new stuff the attention that it might’ve deserved. Now they’re leaving us, and I feel sort of bad about it.
Actually, now that I think about it, the last time I saw them was the night of the last set of midterm elections. They were playing to a two-thirds empty Baltimore club on a Tuesday night, and they kept asking if anyone had been watching the news, if we knew how things were looking. Before the show ended, they were looking pretty good. Rilo Kiley opened. I don’t remember anything else about that show.
They announced the breakup to Pitchfork on Monday: “For us, this transition can be nothing short of heartbreaking. But for reasons both musical and personal, the three of us have chosen this time to move on.” It’s sort of amazing that a broken-up couple could stay in the band they formed for years afterward; I can’t imagine it was easy. Maybe that’s why they’re breaking up. Maybe not. I don’t know. It’s fun to speculate. It always has been with this band.
They’re playing their last show on December 16 at the Bowery Ballroom. Maybe I’ll go.