There is a very small and tasteful cult surrounding the Cincinnati alt.pop duo Over the Rhine. Not to generalize, but this group of people know more about wine than your average cult; they buy organic coffee; they own well-thumbed thesauri; they favor Hank Williams Sr. over Hank Jr. or Hank III, prefer films to sitcoms, hybrids to Hummers, subtlety and soul to the blinking neon blatancy of our modern lives. Depending on who you are, this either sounds like the best cult ever, or the worst. For example, I’m betting that a lot of them are awful snobs about rap, even though Over the Rhine has featured some actual hip-hop-esque beats. The cult probably likes Chuck D, though, because he was on Air America’s morning show for a while.
How do I know this? I live in Madison, Wisconsin, one of the main hubs of Over the Rhine adoration. Every time they come to town, the place is PACKED. The women are all drawn to Linford Detweiler, the hyper-literate and shaggily handsome songwriter/keyboardist in the indie glasses; the men, (and most of the women), gravitate towards Karin Bergquist, the long cool intelligent blonde with the Aretha-Slash-Patsy voice and the kind of genetically-engineered good looks that should spell major stardom but just haven’t, really, yet. And everybody loves the fact that these two are married but still manage to make creative, weird and pretty music together.
I was also, once, a member of this cult. I joined after their double album Ohio blew me away in 2003. Suddenly, there I was, angling for good views of Bergquist’s cheekbones during their annual Christmas-time appearance at, (now-departed), Luther’s Blues, reading Detweiler’s short stories on their website, and checking out the online forums.
But I fell off the bandwagon after a while, for a few reasons. I noticed that Linford and Karin didn’t really seem to be communicating very well during one concert, acting impatient and short with each other in a strange way. The next time I saw them, they were announcing that they had decided to focus more on their relationship than on chasing the brass ring of success; an honorable enough decision, but one that always seems to bode ill for both good music and actual relationships. And I thought Drunkard’s Prayer was a wimpy mess, a conscious step back from the edgy brilliance that had brought me to them in the first place. I predicted further sliding and an imminent divorce, and hit the ejection seat.
Boy, was I wrong. In the last year, Over the Rhine have issued two volumes of live material, a Christmas album, a “not-a-greatest-hits” retrospective and have split from Back Porch/Virgin to form their own label. The Trumpet Child is their first studio album for Great Speckled Bird, and it shows that this talented duo are just as focused, brave, and lovely as they have ever been.
Start with the apocalyptic title song, a Detweiler-penned psychedelic jazz waltz with a mystical protagonist: “The trumpet child blow his horn / Will blast the sky till it’s reborn / With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace / He will surprise the human race”. It starts as a piano-fueled torch song, but rises slowly in intensity as we realize just what the stakes are here; as the song gets more and more apocalyptic in its imagery, Bergquist goes further out vocally, and Detweiler throws in more trickery. By the time the horns kick in at the end of the song, (including an extremely uncharacteristic saxophone solo!), I was hooked all over again.
Or take, say, “Trouble” or “Entertaining Thoughts” both by Bergquist. The former is a sexy come-on with a Latin twist and an unexpected series of chord modulations; the latter is a sexy come-on that sounds, with Rick Plant’s stinging slide guitar lines, like it could fit right in on the Country Music Television countdown. That is if CMT actually played songs with vocabulary words like “euphemisms” or phrases like “The heavens slowly part and you ascend”.
The whole record is simultaneously looser and more ambitious than Drunkard’s Prayer, and this is all to the better. “Who’m I Kiddin’ But Me” works New Orleans second-line drums and an acoustic bass solo into a song about regret and repression, sounding like both a hoedown and an art installation. “Nothing Is Innocent” is a dark and sultry piece, incorporating elements of bossa nova jazz and alt.country, but still engagingly beautiful. This makes it hit all the harder when the listener realizes that it is actually a savage takedown of U.S. foreign policy: “All the king’s men / Will serve scrambled eggs again / When white-washed walls come crashing down”.
Which is not to say this is as transcendent as Ohio or even Films for Radio. The sequencing is a mess; “I Don’t Wanna Waste Your Time” is a wimpy opener and there’s no way they should have ended with two silly pieces like “Don’t Wait for Tom”, (a Tom Waits tribute that isn’t bad really), and “If a Song Could Be President”, (which just makes no sense at all). And I’m a bit immune to the charms of “Let’s Spend the Day in Bed”, which sinks too far into Paul McCartney-style sentimentality.
But there is just too much great stuff here to quibble. Despite its missteps, The Trumpet Child is a great record, one that will be in heavy rotation in tastefully appointed bungalows all over the place for years to come. Over the Rhine is back on its game, which is a great thing for music and for critics who don’t mind being part of a cult or two.
- Multiple songs & interview WNKU podcast