Let me get this straight right from the start: I have never heard any of Over the Rhine's records before this one, I have never seen them live, all I know about them is from their website and the info sheets sent out by the label and this record, Ohio. So it's not some OtR-cult follower talking, just me, a critic on PopMatters with no agenda whatsoever, when I say that this is perhaps my favorite record of the year so far.
Simply put, this is the one where Over the Rhine goes for it all. The band, which consists essentially of married songwriters Karin Bergquist (also the singer) and Linford Detweiler, has been around the art-pop and alt.country scenes for more than a decade without ever really breaking out into mass consciousness. I can't even remember reading any reviews of their records -- that might just be my faulty memory, or it might be their unmemorable band name -- it comes from Over-the-Rhine, the artsy/dangerous neighborhood of Cincinnati where they lived when they first started out. How the hell is anyone supposed to remember that name? (It's also handy for haters; this critic I know says that his wife calls them "Over the Rated." Har har, it is to laugh.)
Then again, their cult status might be due to the fact that they've played almost entirely to their cult. Two compilations of uncollected songs for a group that's never been anywhere near any charts? Thoughtful online tour diaries and literature recommendations on their website? Clearly, this is a band that is comfortable with their underground status. The easiest thing for them to do, obviously, would be to just play out the clock -- keep pumping out the same sort of stuff that they've always done, make their tiny little audience happy enough, leave the boundaries unpushed, etc.
And maybe they've done that here, I don't know -- I've never heard their other stuff, and I'm not part of the cult. But that would make their other records even more impressive than this one, and I don't really think that could possibly be the case. Ohio doesn't sound like a group on cruise control. First off, it's a double album. Sure, they could easily have left a couple of tracks off and kept it at a long single disc, but they made a decision not to do that, to just record all the new songs they loved and see how they fit together. [Full disclosure: I love double albums, if they're done right. Anyone who thinks they're prima facie pretentious is just afraid of commitment.] And there is only one song here that could be credibly and easily left off (Disc Two's "She"), which still wouldn't cut it down under 80 minutes, so I'm glad they left it in, because I love it more every time I hear it.
Secondly, this record is nakedly emotional in a way that a cruise-control indie band could never be. I put this on for the first time not knowing what to expect, and heard the simple piano chords of "B.P.D." on Disc One for all of six seconds before being introduced to the singing of Karin Bergquist: "You're making a mess / Something I can't fix / This time you're all alone / I'd make it alright / But I wouldn't get it right / I'm leavin' it alone". This voice, equal parts country- and rock-loving small-town Ohio girl and neo-boho jazz-torch sophisticate, is just a damned juggernaut through all my critical defenses -- Bergquist is as powerful and damaged a singer as Allison Moorer, which is high enough praise for anyone, I think. There should be awards for the way Bergquist flips the script from the resigned "crying out loud, crying out loud" into the bleak "crying out" in this song, and the way she makes the wordless chanted chorus work for her is uncanny like an X-Man. And "B.P.D."'s status as the year's best power ballad is cemented right near the end, when a huge crashing metal guitar riff explodes the gentle sad mood into a full-on arena-rock sing-along. A lot of lighters are gonna burn out over this one.
It's tempting to dwell on this hypnotic voice, and I will do so myself in a while, but let's cut Detweiler into this a bit. Judging from writing credits for their other records, it seems that he's always been the main songwriter of the group, main bandleader, spokesman, guiding light, etc. But here just about all the songs are written by both of them together, and it sounds that way; Bergquist may be the singer, but she's not the only thing happening in Over the Rhine. Disc Two has a number of great form-meets-function moments. The extreme self-flagellation of "Long Lost Brother" would be unbearable were it not for the laid-back funk of the drumbeat and Tony Paoletta's slide guitar work, so when Bergquist's voice cracks as she is wailing "I wanna do better! / I wanna try harder! / I wanna believe / Down to the letter" it doesn't sound affected or silly or anything except real, lovely, true, and other unfashionable abstract nouns. "How Long Have You Been Stoned" weds '70s stoner rock to a Macy Gray sort of psychedelic murk, and Detweiler's Procol Harum organ line on "Fool" turns the song from an arpeggiated 3/4 lope into a brand-new country classic that will sadly never be covered by anyone from Nashville.
These songs, as you might imagine on a double album by an uncategorizable band, are all over the place in tone and instrumentation: the mournful Rickie Lee Jones-ish (Magazine-era) piano ballad of the title track has little in common with either the song that comes right before, the fakey-tonk "Jesus in New Orleans" ("The last time I saw Jesus / I was drinking bloody marys / In the South"), or the one that follows, the album's most audacious and telling piece, the beautiful "Suitcase". This song is deceptive with a capital D; at first, it's a sweet heartrending slow-burner about the end of a relationship: "Whatcha doin' with a suitcase? / Tryin'a hit the ground running?" But then you start noticing that its circular unresolved chord structure sounds kind of familiar, where is that from, where have you heard that before, and then Bergquist sings "Funny but I feel like I'm fallin' / I wanna beg you to stay", and you see how that echoes the line from that Stevie Nicks song on Tusk, and it all hits you: "Suitcase" is "Beautiful Child, Part 2"! The younger guy is tired of her now, and is leaving her, and she's devastated but she sees the fatalistic humor in it all, and it's doubly sad and somehow less sad for it . . .
and then you realize why Ohio had to be a double album, that Over the Rhine has gone and made their Tusk, every mood and every genre they could think of had to go into the stew, they're charting everything that they ever felt, throwing in every riff and style they've ever heard, incorporating soul and country and hip-hop ("Nobody Number One" is straight-up talking-blues rap, yo) and whatever it is that Tom Waits and Mary J. Blige do in their songs, "fallin' for the entire human race". (That's from "Jesus in New Orleans", just one of the songs that Detweiler calls "Christ-haunted" in the liner notes; they aren't proselytizing, they aren't denying anything, it's all good, don't worry -- Bergquist calls Jesus "still my favorite loser".)
But I could talk and justify and quote all night, and never get to the bone-dry truth that "Professional Daydreamer" is the prettiest song I think I've ever heard, so incredibly sad and brave and Janet-Gaynor-smiling-through-her-tears lovely that I'm welling up now just thinking about it, or to fully explain just what it is about Karin Bergquist's voice that makes "Lifelong Fling" so sexy, or how Detweiler manages to incorporate two of the best lines of the year ("This is what I remember most about dying" and "You were 80% angel, 10% demon, the rest is hard to define") in the same song. Ultimately, this homegrown Tusk cannot be quantified, can only be experienced first-hand. Preferably with headphones, preferably with a bottle of pretty-good wine, preferably with a box of Kleenex nearby. God damn it, this is a great achievement by a band that has just slammed the door on "cult status" forever.