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Rainer Maria - Look Now Look Again Music Album Reviews

A timely reissue of this prescient Midwest emo band’s back catalog—including their second and best album—shows how they transformed sadness into searching euphoria.

Rainer Maria met as 21-year-olds in a college poetry class; their feverish romanticism only spun out from there. Formed in 1995 at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, the trio—singer and bassist Caithlin De Marrais, singer and guitarist Kaia Fischer, drummer William Kuehn—named themselves after Rainer Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet with an acute understanding of sadness and its powers. As the textual glimmer of Midwest emo was taking shape, Rainer Maria’s particular approach to its artful expressiveness was especially thoughtful, searching, melodic, and diffuse. “Someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad,” Rilke wrote, an essential truth that Rainer Maria the band seemed to innately understand more than most of their emo peers. Sadness could be a means of becoming, of transformation, a way forward.

Released in 1999, Rainer Maria’s second and best album, Look Now Look Again, is the sound of three artists collectively undertaking the profound task of self-possession. Newly re-pressed to vinyl alongside the rest of Rainer Maria’s full-lengths, this barebones reissue includes only its glowing music. Still, the timing is auspicious: Look Now Look Again is one of the greatest albums of emo’s revered second wave, and it is evermore relevant as women’s vulnerability has become the center of independent rock at large. In 1999, Rainer Maria were more punk than American Football, more graceful than Braid—both eventual label- and tourmates. They were more feminine, in membership and feeling, than anything in emo’s history. “Centrifuge” refers, by name, to progesterone.

At 35 minutes that feel half as long, Look Now Look Again is viscerally engulfing. Open-tuned guitars evoke pastel shades. Sensitive drumming swells from a wisp to a crash in every chorus. De Marrais and Fischer turn shouts into conversations, their voices creating the achingly beautiful friction that comes with making fire from sticks. When they locate mountainous hooks, they push to the centers of them, carving their way to their raw cores and sewing their screams to the sky.

Rainer Maria had been a band for four years by the time they released Look Now; De Marrais and Fischer had been a couple just as long. “Most of the songs are about our relationship,” De Marrais admitted to SPIN, casting its narratives of fraying romance into stark relief. But De Marrais and Fischer also sing of electricity and sunsets, of driving with the windows down, of making out and tea. The catharsis of their momentous breakdowns drown out any twee preciousness. At times, their brash emo harmonies sound less like the Promise Ring’s blown-out gang vocals than Sleater-Kinney’s ecstatic entanglements on the iconic “One More Hour”—that is, if those ex-lovers were still trying to hold the pieces together. “And I’m certain, if I drive into those trees/It would make less of a mess/Than you’ve made of me,” De Marrais sings on “Broken Radio,” a definitive emo moment.

This bookish trio seemed to know and express feelings the way the Earth knows seasons. Look Now’s tectonic first two tracks made that clear. “Rise” winds open in slow, concentric circles, as its elliptical lyrics hint at the intuitive process of discerning when one is ready for something. De Marrais sings of prematurely picking “carnations” and “skinny daisies,” and the lyrics translate the spark of a new beginning: “I’m laying in the soil/Is it time for me to rise?” The song ends with chiming bells, as if marking an epiphany in motion. “Planetary,” meanwhile, pours down with the feeling of a colossal unknown, of wanting something more beyond the horizon, beyond yourself. De Marrais quietly describes this splendor—“The skyline is two gazes long”—while the song crawls and then bursts into bracing euphoria. Rainer Maria narrate the psychic fireworks that happen while you’re figuring out who you are and where you want to be.

The infatuated tenor of Look Now Look Again peaks with the record’s tender climax, “The Reason the Night Is Long,” which contains as enormous a hook as Rainer Maria ever found. It’s like Cummings or O’Hara in its dazzling ease: “Oh the reason the night is long/Is very simple,” goes its glittering refrain, a sentence that is left to hang gorgeously until their blistering shout that “Nothing I can do with you is wrong” crisscrosses it in the chorus. The song was written when Fischer left De Marrais alone, working a night job translating German insurance policies. It evokes the physicality of desire, of insides twisting. Rainer Maria were dreamers and romantics in a way that, especially here, still feels timeless.

In his 2003 history Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, writer Andy Greenwald passingly refers to Rainer Maria as “kinda-sorta emo.” That ambivalence is telling. Perhaps Greenwald glossed over Rainer Maria because women’s plaintive vulnerability is not shocking in our culture, even if it has been repulsed by men since Joni Mitchell’s Blue in 1971. As Rainer Maria continued, they indeed became more aligned with indie rock broadly, even moving to Brooklyn in late 1999. But Look Now Look Again remains an undeniable classic of a time when emo broadcasted an ethic of intelligence.

Should its title be taken literally, Look Now Look Again is a fitting directive in 2018. Rainer Maria and this emo masterpiece set a precedent for bands including Rilo Kiley (who once opened for them on tour), Camp Cope (who have received no shortage of comparisons), and even Paramore (whose “Franklin” is clearly indebted to their sound). During “The Reason the Night Is Long,” Fischer sang, “Maybe this dim time is just twilight.” The line is about lovers, of course, but it could also apply to artists who were more ahead of their time than they could have known. Rainer Maria have arrived at their magic hour.


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