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Review: Rainer Maria, 'S/T'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

When Rainer Maria first surfaced in the punk-rock basements of Madison, Wisconsin, 20 years ago, its sound was a tense and jagged jumble of youthful feelings: of confinement, of frustration and of having too many words rushing through your brain to capture and convey everything you want the world to hear. The band moved to Brooklyn a few years later, and by the time it broke up in 2006, Rainer Maria had begun to polish the shards of its sound into something more refined and accessible, without sacrificing the wordy intensity on which it made its name.

Much has happened since then. Singer Caithlin De Marrais released two solo albums filled with smart, sophisticated pop-rock, while drummer William Kuehn traveled extensively around the Middle East and guitarist Kaia Fischer studied Buddhism and came out as trans. So it's only natural that the reunion album S/T — Rainer Maria's first new record since 2006's Catastrophe Keeps Us Together — would reflect the inevitable smoothing-out of rough edges that comes with a decade spent wandering the world and weathering major life changes.

Amazingly, S/T (short for self-titled, but not actually eponymous) functions as a natural extension of Rainer Maria's discography, while staying true to its members' accumulated wisdom and insight. The band still surrounds De Marrais' worried pleas with a churning, urgently rendered swirl of guitars, to the point where they practically drown her out in "Suicides and Lazy Eyes."

In "Broke Open Love" and "Lower Worlds," Fischer still leaps in to shout the occasional counterpoint, but she stays in lockstep with De Marrais throughout S/T, always tuned in to the larger surge of sound that surrounds them. It's a pleasure to have them back, and to revel in the mere existence of their nine knotty, cathartic, enormously welcome new songs.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)