Artist: Over the Rhine
Album: The Long Surrender
In Brief: A delectable merging of sounds and moods echoing the last four or five albums makes The Long Surrender one of OTR’s best.
It’s a thrill to see a band’s fans come through for them. In this day and age where more and more artists are jumping ship to get away from the major label machine, it’s definitely easier to connect with fans via the Internet without any layers of PR in between, but going indie also makes it harder for artists to fund their own artistic vision. So you’ll find a great little niche of people who really love you, but that doesn’t always translate to coming out in the black after making the album you’ve dreamed of making. Or even getting to make it in the first place. So when an indie group that could such as Over the Rhine manages to rally the support of their fans to fund a new album by way of a pre-sale, it fills my heart with all kinds of warm fuzzies. A fan has got to have some real faith in an artist before they’ll be willing to shell out some of their disposable income on a mere idea, without a note of it yet being recorded. But having listened to OTR’s music for nearly a decade now, I can certainly see why their fanbase would make such an inspiring show of support.
The result of this grassroots-funded labor of love, The Long Surrender, is upon us now, and I’d say it’s been worth the wait and the vote of confidence. I’ve had to sort of “grow into” OTR’s style over the years, being that it’s an often sparse blend of folk and jazz, with only occasional overtones of pop and rock, the kind of quiet, dusky, after-hours music that loves to leave you hanging on a note only to belt out the next one with grand form. Husband-and-wife duo Karin Bergquist and Linford Detwiler seem to change up styles every record, first getting my attention with the more pop-leaning Films for Radio before unplugging all the bells and whistles for the laid-back landscape of the double-disc Ohio, and then exploring the darkest moments and eventual redemption of their marriage with the languid Drunkard’s Prayer. There wasn’t much room to get quieter after that, so The Trumpet Child took the band in a more playful direction, still keeping the music relatively light but throwing in a few whimsical odes to favorite musicians and even to the joy of music itself. Films has been my favorite this entire time even though I’ve come to learn it’s not representative of the band’s overall style. But now that The Long Surrender has released, I’m tempted to say that they’ve almost outdone Films. This isn’t so much because OTR improved on their sound in any radical way – it’s more because it seems to touch on the best elements of those aforementioned albums (as well as the mid-90’s release Good Dog Bad Dog, which to many fans is their high-water mark) and bring them together into a cohesive whole. The songwriting seems more carefully considered and designed to pack a punch, and each tune seems to take on its own identity, sometimes in mildly bizarre ways, but ensuring that no track fades into the background. Even at its slowest and sparsest, The Long Surrender is a sublime mixture of intriguing thoughts and beautiful sounds.
It certainly didn’t hurt that OTR went and got themselves a producer who knows a thing or two about that nebulous reason where folk, jazz, and independently-minded experimentation meet. The group practically lived in my backyard for several months (OK, realistically more like a few miles away), holed up in Joe Henry‘s basement studio in South Pasadena, California, honing the songs together and recording them in live takes, all the players in the room at the same time, no need to fuss over piecing everything together later like a band might do in a big-name studio. I had this little fantasy that I might run into Karin, Linford, and Joe in a local coffee shop at some point when they came up for air, not so much for the chance to meet them and blather like an idiot about how I’m such a big fan or whatever, but rather to just to catch a brief glimpse of their brainstorming process. Sadly, this never happened, but for all I know, we could have narrowly missed one another. Thankfully, The Long Surrender is that kind of record that lets me feel like I’m a fly on the wall in the studio – like the group’s best music, it feels like something secret and glorious is being whispered to the listener as spontaneously as it comes to the artist’s mind. In real life, of course it was all a bit more planned out than that, but this is a group that has a way of turning deeply felt confessions about sin and brokenness into causes for celebration. They’re one of my favorite examples of Christians making music, because rather than simply trying to spout off all the answers, their faith is presented in the form of questions and conversations. For those who sit somewhere on the spectrum between total fanaticism and total skepticism, it’s easy to feel like two people who have been stumbling towards God all these years have come alongside you, not to preach to you, but simply to compare notes.
1. The Laugh of Recognition
The opening track, penned entirely by Karin, has an easygoing feel to it that reminds me of the opener from Drunkard’s Prayer, “I Want You to Be My Love”. But there’s a mandolin in place of the expected acoustic guitar, and a hint of the steel guitar-soaked longing that permeated Ohio. I’ll take it as a cross between the moods of those two albums. It stands out more to me than the openers from either of those two, because I relate to the lyrics, which are basically about learning to lighten up, laugh a little bit at yourself, and realize you’re not the only one to go through a complete tragedy. You know how sometimes you laugh nervously at a conversation, not because the situation is really all that humorous, but because it describes you a lot more than you’re willing to admit? Story of my life. So this one quickly earns its way into my list of top OTR tracks.
2. Sharpest Blade
This is the first of two tracks that Joe Henry contributes his composition skills to. Fittingly, it’s a slow, dusky piano ballad, with little in the way of percussion other than distant, damp cymbals that are reminiscent of the way-past-midnight mood of Henry’s solo work. While I can easily picture Henry crooning the lyrics, he actually didn’t write them – the song was a tossup between Linford and Karin to see who could contribute the better lyric, and Karin won (though Linford still gets a songwriting credit, so there must have been some compromise). Amusingly given the friendly competition between husband and wife, it’s a vulnerable, confessional song about two lovers who have a bad habit of cutting each other down. The song aches for a redemption to the conflict, speaking with a sense of longing and understanding as if to say, “I know how easy it is for you to hurt me like this, because I can do the same.” Perhaps it’s a bit heavy for just track two, but that’s more or less how Drunkard’s Prayer played out, so it’s actually the uptempo songs on OTR albums that catch me off-guard nowadays.
3. Rave On
Hey, speaking of which… here’s one of the most upbeat tracks on the record! By OTR standards, that means mid-tempo, with a sense of building momentum as it goes. The deep bass notes and ghostly ambiance behind this track give it a layered feel, much like their Films for Radio days, so it should be obvious why I’m partial to this one. Still, this doesn’t exactly scream pop production – Karin’s still stretching some of the words to the limit of how long she can hold her breath while only sort of whispering others, having fun with the improvisation and giving it that slightly-sensual feel that permeates many of OTR’s more joyous songs. The basis for this one is a poem by B. H. Fairchild, turning its declaration of “Rave on” into a more defiant “Rock on!” Interestingly, the band had originally envisioned this as more of a rock-oriented number before deciding to scale it back to the minor-key acoustic strum that ended up being the backbone of the song. There are lots of picturesque details in the lyrics even though I can’t be sure if they tell a linear story – the righteous and the rowdy meet amidst lines such as “Adrenaline spills like blood that pours, screamin’ out ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!'” and “We’re hauling @$$ to Arkalon, the ghost town on the Cimmaron.” The fact that such phrases would intersect within a single song, one which blends subtle tape loop tricks with simple acoustic instruments, along with the irony of telling people to “rock on” in a folk song, should tell the OTR newbie most of what they need to know about the band in a nutshell.
Another moody, mandolin and piano-driven track shows up here, its somber march approaching a slow dirge. It’s another Bergquist/Henry collaboration, reportedly a bit of an eleventh-hour addition to the album. The melody is so rich, so darkly hued, with these unexpected lifts and a beautiful midsection where Karin’s voice really soars. This feels like a track that could have been buried late in the second disc of Ohio, and that’s not to say it’s weaker material – it’s just that it feels like more of a transitional piece that would show up as we’re anticipating an album’s grand finale. OTR never orders their albums the way I’d expect. I’m OK with that.
We come to nearly a full dead stop for this slowly strummed, country-flavored ballad, which would have listeners nodding off if recorded by lesser bands. But Linford’s words are beautifully on point here, really getting inside the feeling of being at a total loss before God. It’s a prayerful song, which Karin breathes life into beautifully, with no small amount of assistance from the even thicker warble of Lucinda Williams. The two have a similar enough vocal approach that at first I simply assumed Karin had been double-tracked and she was laying on the vocal spice a little stronger than normal. But Lucinda’s voice has a “smokier” quality to it, I guess you could say. The two sound beautifully forlorn together, and the song saves itself from being a total pity party with that one redeeming line (pun intended): “I’m not too far gone to fall headlong into the arms that love me.” And that’s just one of the simplest and yet sweetest lines that Over the Rhine has ever penned.
6. Infamous Love Song
This lengthy ballad aims to be exactly what it describes itself as in the title, by way of several verses of bizarre spiritual metaphors that depict the very heavens engaged in a war to save the relationship of two young, dumb lovers. There’s no chorus to speak of, and they even play it a bit loose with the rhythm, giving Karin ample opportunity to stretch out the most meaningful words in a glorious torch song that merges the best of Ohio‘s “Lifelong Fling”, Drunkard’s Prayer‘s “Firefly”, and The Trumpet Child‘s title track. (To avoid locking out those who don’t know OTR’s history, let’s just say that puts this song in rather elite company.) You can practically see Karin bending over backwards on top of the slightly out-of-key piano, in full-on diva mode, as Linford happily plinks along on the keys, wondering how he could be so lucky. be prepared for a fair bit of weirdness in Linford’s lyrics, starting from the very first lines: “I sing the bebop apocalypse/Lean into you, God’s hands on my hips.” They go on to celebrate their never-ending love song, with sly nods at all the things it’s survived over the years, and having the audacity to high-five various saints as they enter their own private vision of heaven. This may be an awkward listen for some, but it’s nice to hear a Christian couple fully celebrating their marriage without being didactic about it, you know?
7. Only God Can Save Us Now
This is the first of a mere two tracks that I’m not quite sure about. Karin’s as imaginative as ever in her exploration of down-and-out characters in need of grace, but this time around, her explanation of senile old folks causing mayhem as they meander about the halls of the asylum reciting various nursery rhymes might be a bit too silly for its own good. (Case in point: “Jean says fuzzy wuzzy, fuzzy wuzzy was a bear.” I don’t think I could take that seriously from any songwriter.) Linford’s got some lovely slide guitar going on that quite nearly saves the day, but I feel like the subdued percussion and backing vocals don’t quite do enough to enable the whimsical wink that the song seems to want to give the audience.
8. Oh Yeah, By the Way
You don’t hear Linford sing too often on OTR records, and there’s a reason for that – he’s got a dry, flat tone to his voice that results in his wife singing circles around him. However, he fits in well as a backing vocalist every now and then when the song’s got more of a gentle, weary tone to it – see “Bluer” for a good past example. He wrote this one, and he backs up Karin word-for-word, the couple singing in symmetry as they explore the incredibly sad moment of a couple only realizing their love for each other as one of them is about to walk out the door. It’s the kind of sentiment that would have fit perfectly at the darkest hour of Drunkard’s Prayer, though perhaps it’s the sort of thing that would have been painful to write back then. Maybe it’s a “what if” – an imagining of how it’d have gone if the couple had failed to overcome their marital issues, and the only recourse was an amicable split. It’s subtle enough to slip by if you’re not listening carefully, but pay attention to the words and it’s a real tear-jerker.
9. The King Knows How
This would be the other one that I’m not quite sure about.l The album probably needed a bit of levity at this point, so we’ve got more of a defined drum beat going (which is still rather soft by pop music standards), what sounds like a bit of backmasked piano looped in the background, and Karin whips out a breezy, semi-bluesy melody as she sings her ode to a favorite musician: some guy by the name of Elvis Presley. (Ever heard of him?) OTR has joked before that they live in a land where Elvis is King and Jesus is Lord, and so it’s pretty obvious that the “King” mentioned in this song is the former, if her pleas for him to “Take me all the way to Memphis” weren’t already enough of a clue. It’s cute, though I remain at a distance from it, possibly because I never really got into Elvis. Then again, they did a tribute to Tom Waits on their last album, and I loved that song for its sheer wackiness, despite the fact that Tom Waits would probably be much tougher sell for me than Elvis Presley. Oh well, sometimes this group simply enjoys singing about the power of music itself, so c’est la vie.
10. There’s a Bluebird in My Heart
I was surprised, when I finally got my hands on the liner notes, that Joe Henry did not have a hand in writing this one. For some reason, the slow jazz crooning and the poetic analogies seem right up his alley. Linford and Karin teamed up with the idea from a Charles Bukowski poem as their inspiration, coming up with another vocal showpiece that is as gorgeous as it is sad. To paraphrase, the titular bluebird loves to sing, but its song isn’t a particularly happy one. That makes the song a bit of a downer, but there’s a lovely tenor sax solo right in the middle to pick things up (played by Joe Henry’s son Lavon Henry, so I guess that apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, eh?) It’s not quite the showstopper that The Trumpet Child was, but given the subject matter, this one needed to be a bit more subdued.
11. Days Like These
We’re back in folk/country mode here, with a song that I was surprised to find out was written by the band’s colleague and occasional tour-mate Kim Taylor. It has the same languid, dreamy tone as some of the subtler material from Ohio (I feel like I’m making such comparisons every other track at this point, but it’s weird how nostalgic so many of these melodies make me, despite my never feeling that the band is repeating itself). Amidst a delicate acoustic strum, the distant ambling of a drumkit, and another delicious helping of lap steel, Karin simply looks up at the sky and proclaims: “All I wanna do is live my life honestly/I just wanna wake up and see your face next to me.” It’s like the undoing of “Oh Yeah, By the Way”, a song that looks forward to reconciliation, to taking one’s lover back in, to brighter days ahead with clear blue skies. When I hear this one, I get fond memories of Kim and Karin duetting on “Born” the one and only time thus far that I’ve been privileged to see OTR live.
12. All My Favorite People
A soft, floating, heavenly intro takes us into a song that’s part bar tune and part Gospel hymn, starting off subtle as if taking its cue from Ohio‘s “Jesus in New Orleans”, but gradually getting more and more swept up in itself, realizing its place as the grand finale, and quite beautifully making its bid to become one of OTR’s signature songs. It’s a creed that seems to drive most of the band’s songwriting – if I could sum up OTR’s attitude for you in one sentence, I would quite likely pick the first lines of the chorus: “All my favorite people are broken/Believe me, my heart should know.” (Assuming you’re not bothered by Karin’s pronunciation of “favo-right“, anyway.) The song itself feels broken and yet beautiful, coming to life with rattling percussion and an amusingly wheezy sax solo that seems to get it right by getting it wrong, as Lavon Henry squeaks and squawks out almost as many notes as he plays straight. Plenty of tinkling piano and slide guitar here, just in case you forgot about the group’s more “folksy” elements – it’s really a stew of just about everything that has worked for the band in the past. So much of this song is quotable that it’s hard to single out any more lines or verses without just reprinting the entire thing, so I’d say if you could sample one track from this album to decide if OTR’s music is for you, let this be it.
The album concludes on what might seem like an unfinished thought, as the piano, lap steel, and sax meet up in a solemn reprise, telling us it’s time for the club to close up shop as the first rays of dawn come up over the street outside. There are no lyrics – just about 100 seconds words of briefbut lovely soloing. It can be taken as an unspoken prayer, hinging on a line from the preceding song that tells us sometimes they’re better left that way.
Over the Rhine has made one of their most subtle albums, but also one of their most lyrically satisfying. It won’t be for everyone, and even for me, it’s not the kind of thing that can sustain the majority of my listening moods, but when I really need to reflect and stop feeling sorry for myself, The Long Surrender feels like the well-timed company of a wise old friend. I can only hope that the fanbase continues to show a willingness to support independent-minded works of art like this for as long as Karin and Linford choose to keep making ’em.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Laugh of Recognition $1.50
Sharpest Blade $1
Rave On $2
Infamous Love Song $1.50
Only God Can Save Us Now $.50
Oh Yeah, By the Way $1
The King Knows How $.50
There’s a Bluebird in My Heart $1.50
Days Like These $1
All My Favorite People $1.50
Karin Bergquist: Lead vocals, acoustic guitar
Linford Detwiler: Piano, guitars, bass, assorted instruments, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: