New York-by-way-of-Madison,Wis., indie-rockers Rainer Maria would seem to have what it takes to make the leap from cult heroes to mainstream sweethearts. Years of touring have rendered them a powerful live band, and networking in the tight-knit indie-emo-punk scene has earned them a devoted following. Musically, they temper their punk volume with poetic, introspective lyrics and the pretty melodic vocals of bassist/singer Caithlin de Marrais. But mixing poetry and rock is dangerous business: For every Patti Smith, there are a half-dozen Moody Blues, and, unfortunately, despite their ambition, Rainer Maria's third full-length for indie-emo powerhouse Polyvinyl commits one of the deadliest punk rock sins -- it's boring.
Too wussy for punk rock and not wussy enough for pretty rock, the band spends most of the album loping along in search of beauty or catharsis but too often finding neither. De Marrais, along with guitarist/occasional singer Kyle Fischer and drummer William Kuehn, fills the songs with quiet moments and crescendos, but the twists and turns never really go anywhere. Many songs, such as the album-opening "Artificial Light," attempt to be powerful and dynamic but are instead simply predictable and repetitious, and throwing in 15-cent words like "anathema" just makes things worse, turning a song you can dismiss into a song you just want to slap.
Although most of A Better Version of Me fails to elicit much excitement, some exceptions that show the band to be worthy of the "next big thing" crown it's been handed. "The Seven Sisters" locks onto a Throwing Muses-type angular groove and rides it for all it's worth, and on "The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets", in which Fischer shares lead-vocal duties, the band actually sounds excited to be playing. The album's closer, "Hell and High Water," is also its high point, as de Marrais remembers that "emo" is short for "emotional" and lets loose her best vocal performance. All in all, though, it's too little, too late to save the record. Rainer Maria are talented and capable of creating some genuinely exciting moments. They would seem to have the ability and ambition to make a great album. A Better Version Of Me isn't it.