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Feature Review: Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender

Over the Rhine
The Long Surrender
[Great Speckled Dog (2011)]

The five biggest bands from Ohio, in no particular order, are: Rascal Flatts (Country), Marilyn Manson (Industrial), Bow Wow (Hip-Hop), Warrant (80s Metal) and Devo (?). Also hailing from that musically diverse state is Over the Rhine, a husband-wife team based in Cincinnati. (The band’s name comes from a rough neighborhood in that city.)

Over the Rhine is not a new band. They’ve been recording for almost twenty years, and the skill that comes with so much experience is apparent. The two-disc album Ohio was released in 2003 to critical acclaim, and their newest release, The Long Surrender, adds to their previous winning cocktail a top-notch producer in Joe Henry and a heavy-weight guest star in vocalist Lucinda Williams and comes on the heels of a knock-out performance at 2010’s Americana Music Festival & Conference. The result: a fantastic album that should, by rights, send Over the Rhine into the stratosphere. Where they belong.

The music is contemplative, moody and rooted in soul. Vocalist Karin Bergquist’s smoky, seductive voice channels old Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. With the exception of the incandescent track “The King Knows How”, all of the tracks are a gentle, melodic sort that goes best with Jameson (neat) [really, Mike, Jameson? This sounds like a backhanded compliment to me. -ed], a cigar and a roaring fire. It’s easy to imagine dinner parties with The Long Surrender in the background, getting party-goers into the best possible mood.

From the start, everything fits into place like gears in a finely tuned machine. “The Laugh Of Recognition” opens with a haunting piano melody and a windy whine of strings. Berquist comes in above of her husband Detweiler’s melody and whispers for us to come on and go. And we do; it would be impossible not to. Close your eyes and you are elsewhere, elsewhen. Music that transports listeners out of themselves is not to be underestimated. The songs lead and bleed into each other, forming like a country/soul Voltron.

The three middle tracks are where The Long Surrender really shines. “Soon” feels like a warning; there’s danger all throughout, an unnerving sense of dire consequences right around the corner. It feels like the most deadly waltz ever danced and leads straight into “Undamned”: a fitting resolution. Lucinda Williams brings her best here, and her strong voice blends well with Over the Rhine’s smoldering fire. Williams is a hit-and-miss artist nowadays, but she nails the bullseye in this plaintive song; but even so, Bergquist outshines the Grammy-winner.

“Infamous Love Song” follows the Williams duet. It’s a treat picking out the deadly serious narrative told in a belted voice. Although it’s easy to just let the powerful music wash all over, there are so many great lines that it’s a waste to ignore the lyrics of “Infamous Love Song”. Lines like:

Grip the midnight microphone, steal every cell of my flesh and bone
I wrestle my angel and smoky stage lies
Climb Jacob’s Ladder two thousand more flights
Tell Saint Valentine, hey give me five
Baby our love song must survive

The album isn’t all doom and gloom. “Oh Yeah By The Way” is a beautiful duet between the husband and wife, and you can imagine the two of them singing into each other’s eyes without a snicker or a hint of irony. It’s pretty and sweet and perfect. “The King Knows How” is as fun as it can get, too. It’s a danceable tune with built-in head bobbing. Listen to it and try not to dance. (Yes, it’s a dare.)

Whether it’s the addition of Joe Henry or the maturation of a decades-long partnership, this is a high point of the duo’s years of stellar music making. Ohio is where some diverse and wildly talented musicians call home. The kind of music that places like Akron, Cleveland and Cincinnati gestate and produce is mind-blowingly funky. Over the Rhine joins this exalted, if weird, company and sets themselves apart.

—Michael Tager (Baltimore, MD)

[Editor’s note: Over the Rhine will be on All Things Considered today. Check your local NPR listings for times.]

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