Over the Rhine
A Cincinnati duo on its own path
by James M. Manheim
Over the Rhine, which takes its name from a tough but increasingly creative area near downtown Cincinnati, essentially consists of vocalist Karin Bergquist and pianist and guitarist Linford Detweiler. They write almost all their own material, both separately and together. The two take on other musicians as needed, but, especially in their recent music, they have a knack for keeping the duo front and center they're not writing for a band, but rather using the other players to provide subtle backgrounds. At the center of Over the Rhine's sound is Bergquist's voice, a slender but visionary thing lately enriched by an engagement with classic jazz and blues. "Karin and I write songs that allow her voice to bloom," Detweiler says.
Their music is personal, reflecting several distinct concerns that make it hard to classify. All of it is subtle, dreamy, and low key. The closest comparison would be to Canada's Cowboy Junkies, with whom Over the Rhine toured for a while as "honorary members." "Folk-pop" and "alt-country" have been proposed as labels, and each is fine as far as it goes, but neither captures the role of Detweiler's piano, which can sketch sweeping rock landscapes or settle into cocktail-lounge shadows by turns. Their complex, rather literary lyric style is their own, often centered lately on quirky take-offs on romantic songs of the jazzy sort, songs about war and the violence that has infused itself into modern life, and spiritual essays Over the Rhine has had a glancing relationship with the Christian music scene but has tended toward an unaffiliated desire for a better world and toward the fellowship found in hoping for it.
Detweiler and Bergquist are quite prolific; including a few solo albums by Detweiler, they've released twenty albums since their beginnings in the New Wave scene of the late 1980s. Two new Over the Rhine albums have appeared within the last year, and music from them should be prominent in their current
show. One album, Snow Angels, is a Christmas release of a sort that will go straight to the heart of some of us with its very first lines: "Strings of lights above the bed/Curtains drawn and a glass of red/All I ever get for Christmas is blue." The album includes an affectionate piano tribute to cartoonist Charles Schulz and doesn't differ much in theme from the other new album, The Trumpet Child, except that it's generally set in winter. The Trumpet Child has its own tribute, a very funny one to Tom Waits.
As often happens with acts that succeed in creating multifaceted little worlds of their own, Over the Rhine has a devoted following that makes Internet notes on every show. There was a contingent that thought nothing of the five-hour drive from Cincinnati to see a twenty-minute Over the Rhine set at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival last winter. Initiates can join these devotees of persistent optimism when Over the Rhine comes to the Ark on Sunday, December 2.
[Review published December 2007]