In a lot of ways, Cincinnati's Over the Rhine belonged to the world almost as soon as they birthed its spectacular debut album, 1991’s Patience. There wasn't really an evolutionary period involving chops-honing and building an audience with local bar gigs every weekend before becoming a songwriting and performing powerhouse that could stand toe-to-toe with its peer group on the national level. Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler sprang fully formed from Zeus’ forehead as a mature and supremely talented duo with the undeniable ability to mingle heartache and joy with words and music and find an indelible way to invest each emotion with a taste of the other.
For that reason, OTR came out of the chute with the poise and moxy to open for Bob Dylan without a moment’s hesitation or twinge of intimidation (well, maybe just a smidge). The band's inherent talents were strong enough to charm his crowd into following the band. Bergquist and Detweiler’s most impressive achievement over the past 20 years has been an unflinching dedication to their craft, remaining enamored with the development of their songwriting and musical execution while retaining their signature sound and holding on to their core audience while attracting new fans along the way. (Oh, and they've managed to stay married, too.) Those are no mean feats considering the trends and pan flashes that have streaked through Pop music over the past two decades.
On their latest album, The Long Surrender (released on the band's Great Speckled Dog label and distributed by Redeye Distribution), OTR push its gorgeous envelope once again, this time working with producer Joe Henry, who proves to be an adept and sensitive caretaker and collaborator. By that same token, Bergquist and Detweiler are excellent foils for Henry’s texturalism, as evidenced by the smoky Jazz ache of “There’s a Bluebird in My Heart” and the creaky Americana floorboard vibe of “The Laugh of Recognition.” And while OTR doesn’t stray far afield from the soulful piano-based Pop the group has long championed, the pair and their talented cast (along with Henry’s assistance) breathe new life into musical ideas they perfected long ago.
On the last OTR album, 2007’s The Trumpet Child, Detweiler channeled Tom Waits on “Don’t Wait for Tom.” On Surrender, Henry and the duo paint a similar picture in subtler shades with “All My Favorite People” and “Infamous Love Song,” while “Only God Can Save Us Now” finds them panning for gold in John Prine‘s creek and coming up with plenty of nuggets.
Just as significantly, OTR proves its gift for translation with a powerful Baroque/Chamber Pop reading of longtime cohort and fellow Cincinnatian Kim Taylor’s “Days Like This,” an already beautiful song polished to a dusky luster by Bergquist’s emotive vocals, Detweiler’s intuitive piano and Henry’s magnificent facility for sonic sculpting. Those elements are equally in play on the delicately insistent “Rave On” and the dark carnival carousel soundtrack of “Soon,” but the album’s highlight may well be “Undamned,” featuring Lucinda Williams trading vocal phrases with Bergquist.
If The Long Surrender holds any larger message, it just might be that Bergquist and Detweiler are fully armed with the kind of musical curiosity and genuine awe that is essential to Over the Rhine’s continued growth as they embark on their third decade of brilliantly familiar reinvention.
This review is from the next installment of Brian Baker's review column, I Shall Be Released, which appears here weekly.