In these days when labels are slapped on everything willy-nilly, a band has three choices: go with the flow and fit snugly into an established niche, defy convention by creating a brand-new style or delve into so many styles that, short of rattling off a grocery list of roots and influences, the music would be impossible to practically categorize. Over the Rhine fits into the latter. As to what to call the music, they’ve said it best themselves: “post-nuclear, pseudo-alternative, folk-tinged art-pop.” No argument here. That is exactly what they are, and more.
Over the Rhine’s second show of the day at the legendary, and potentially doomed, Bottom Line in Greenwich Village was to a scant audience—the sharp decline in live gig attendance painfully obvious. But this music, by the band’s own claims, promised to deliver some truly interesting stuff. Operating almost strictly on a small but intensely loyal fan base, Internet and concert sales of their albums, and touring, is apparently enough to keep the band going; it ultimately allows them the freedom to make whatever kind of music they darn well please. What a shame this music isn’t on the radio. Music that follows all the radio-friendly guidelines but with a little excitement and innovation—they certainly have the production down. If Faith Hill had a tasteful, experimental backup music and was given ultra-literate lyrics to sing, she might sound a bit like this band. This is in no way a disservice to Over the Rhine, for whatever you may say about Faith Hill, the woman can sing. So it’s a wonder these folks can’t get some airplay. But of course there are reasons: bloated media outlets, FCC injustice, etc. But for all intents and purposes, this is pop music, down to the tight production, Linford Detweiler’s loosely rock and roll-based compositions and Karin Bergquist’s classically trained voice—she even has the looks to match Hill’s so video appeal would be no problem. One listen to them, however, makes the problem clear: these are interesting, intricate compositions that blend Eastern influences with Blues, set operatic vocals to country and make rock music fit for a recital hall—not the challenging fare you might expect from your FM dial.
Spaciness courtesy of a sitar, supported by slow, subtly intricate keyboard work by Detweiler, gives way to bright pop balladry and country tones. Bergquist’s voice is loud and clear, but unexaggerated, at the helm. Little flourishes, all instruments converging into micro-crescendos, give the jams structure and purpose, affectingly fortifying a song about abuse. Noted for being more lyrically informed by the likes of Dylan Thomas than by Bob Dylan, Over the Rhine delve deep into the darkest parts of the soul, or the deepest, darkest parts of Ohio, their home state and title of their new double album. Tortured characters peer out from the corners of desolate, gray, Midwestern landscapes. Somber images appear prominently throughout Ohio. “Cruel and Pretty” is an example:
He knew that he was dying
And found that he was flying
High above the city
Through the ceiling of the stars
So cruel and pretty
More gothic moments are found in “Idea #21 (Not Too Late)”:
Till we wash the blood from the hands of our fathers
We’re all sisters and brothers, sons and daughters
“Fool” reveals a sliver of redemption among the darkness, but not without a struggle:
My heart’s becoming true
It aches to make room for you
Fool pursue me
To heaven above or to hell below
Just don’t let go
Pain is our mother
She makes us recognize each other
Some songs, with their rather bleak messages, are given a more upbeat treatment than one might expect. This is a nice respite since the lyrics lean mostly towards doom and gloom. But Over the Rhine are most affecting when they unleash their influences and belt out what seem like ambling jams but are actually tight-knit compositions. These jams often delve into the ominous and post-nuclear (as promised), creating a genuinely unsettling, powerful atmosphere. Bergquist’s alto soars to apocalyptic heights above a hellish orchestra. And as easily as they dive into the clutches of Satan himself, they escape unscathed, led towards the light by a crystalline piano line and an angel at the helm.
So you see, Bergquist and Detweiler are most at home in the anguished literary rock pantheon alongside the likes of Leonard Cohen (whose songwriting was deemed worthy of inclusion in the Norton Anthology of Poetry), although the music couldn’t be more different. The starkness that characterizes Cohen’s early acoustic work is supplanted in Over the Rhine’s music with meticulously complex structures that draw as much from classical symphonies as from Neil Young. Anomalies indeed.
An unfortunate distinction that has been made about these Ohioans is that they fit snugly into the adult alternative scene. Adult alternative, in my book, refers to inoffensive music with an FCC-approved edge, formulated for suburban sprawl dwellers and generally implies the Goo Goo Dolls or Dave Matthews. Over the Rhine really doesn’t deserve this sort of pigeonholing. They definitely have the polish “worthy” of your local alternative FM station but their delivery is simply too impressive to write off as such. Even the most snobbish of music fans would have to admit that the live presence of this band is a thing worthy of praise. Their songs are poems, their music reveals the vast and varied interests and backgrounds of the band members and they rock out with as much gusto as when they slow it down for a ballad. This is not to say that tight arrangements preclude criticism of content, it just so happens that in Over the Rhine’s case the content is what anchors them and prevents them from becoming just another alternative band. If this were the kind of alternative band the masses were subjected to, we might all be better for it.