A Better Version of Me is the fourth album from rock group Rainer Maria. It was released in 2001 on Polyvinyl Records and totals forty one minutes and forty five seconds in length over nine tracks.
Rainer Maria, for those unaware of the band, is a three piece, consisting of a female lead vocalist and two males who provide most of the instrumentation. Their sound is pretty standard pop rock; the element that makes them stand out is the female lead vocal, for better or worse.
Why "for better or worse"? Well, Caithlin de Marrais's voice alternates between a midrange scream and a selection of notes she has difficulty reaching, meaning she's trying to make her voice do too much and it often comes off as though she can't sing well. Fortunately, on a few tracks, this vocal approach really pays off; on the rest, well, it's a mixed bag.
This album boils down to three groups of three tracks each: three of the tracks are absolutely fantastic; three of the tracks are solid, but nothing special; and three of the tracks are rubbish. What you're left with is an average album with some real standout moments.
The album opens with one of the real winners on the album. Artificial Light (3:40) is an anti-technology anthem tied in with a song about love lost. Caithlin de Marrais's aching vocals somehow manage to pull this song together, even though many of the elements seem to be somehow off. Perhaps it's the effect they were going for, because it does tie into the song's theme. It rolls and swaggers forward in an amazingly uneven way until you're left at the end wondering what you've just heard, but you're hitting the repeat button to take the journey one more time.
The next track is pretty much middle of the road for this album. Thought I Was (3:16) rocks along pretty well and is probably their tightest track, but it just doesn't somehow click in the way the first one does. Still, it's above average pop rock, unquestionably.
The third track is one of the bad ones. Ceremony (4:20) is very low tempo and perhaps that's why it doesn't work. Caithlin's vocals go all over (up, down, up, down), but still manage to not go anywhere. This track is just there; it doesn't do much of anything and by the fourth or fifth listen, it had become almost grating.
The next track is laughable to me. The first two lines of the song: "I want to see your goodness around me / But it's got the properties of water - transparent as glass." That second line earns a place in my book of nightmarishly non-poetic lyrics. It might fit in a song by They Might Be Giants or a similar quirk rock group, but this song is shooting to be a melancholic song of mourning. Twenty-five seconds into The Seven Sisters (6:11) and I'm out; lyrics like that destroy a song for me.
Save My Skin (5:12) improves somewhat to merely average, making me wonder at this point in the album if anything was going to match the wonderful first track. Caithlin takes her vocals down a notch here, helping out the track; if she had belted them out like on other tracks, this song wouldn't work. But as it is, it's a nice introspective track about valuing yourself.
Up next is a wonderful pop song, one of the best I've heard in a long while. The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets (4:19) is about the bizarreness of history and the bizarreness of life in general. The layering of the male and female vocals just works here, adding to the feeling of "what's really going on here, and do I need to know" that this song exudes. Brilliantly done, and a nice change of pace from Caithlin's vocals which have utterly dominated up to this point.
Atropine (6:34) is solid for the first half, but it falls into the same trap that a lot of music does in my eyes: it goes on far too long. The guitarwork at the end goes on far too long, then it just drops out and drum work (with just a hint of guitar) finishes it out. It doesn't go anywhere and fills the last half of the track with... nothing. A below average track.
Spit and Fire (4:28) is better; I'm a big fan of the rather witty lyrics, but musically, it just doesn't quite click; it comes off as being sort of aimless. Still, it's quite listenable, but just average for this disc.
Fortunately, the disc closes with at least a triple, if not a home run. Hell And High Water (3:45) is just as great as the previous two shining tracks, Artificial Light and The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets. This is just a good rocker with a nice stop-start element and a great little hook that gets me humming. Caithlin's voice works well here, not grating on me like it did on tracks two through five. A great closer.
In summary, this is an average album except for three moments when everything just clicks, the sun comes out, and absolute magic is made. The worth of this album rests on the strength of three very strong tracks, especially The Contents Of Lincoln's Pockets. I'm unsure what to recommend for additional listening, but the musical stylings of Janis Joplin seem an appropriate fit somehow.