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The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Over the Rhine - The Long Surrender: A

Well, this looks familiar. An artist that tends to play in the genre somewhere between folk and jazz releases an album in the new decade. They’ve been around for upwards of a decade, and their newest album seems to be just another notch in their belt in their long but consistent career. The artist is a traveling group of musicians, but the frontperson of the group is a woman. Her voice is front and center, but, on their newest, the deep voices of men can be heard throughout, backing her up. The album comes and goes with little recognition from both critics and the public. Entertainment Weekly gives it an A- and, in doing so, gets the attention of one music critic. He listens to the artist’s newest album and falls in love with it, calling it his favorite album of the year and featuring it as a little-known addition near the top of his year-end top ten list.

At the risk of creating a pattern for the albums I review positively, The Long Surrender really is the best album I’ve heard yet this year. After more than twenty years of soldiering through radically changing sonic landscapes, Over the Rhine have released a nearly perfect album, one that, like Laura Veirs’s July Flame, forces you to keep quiet so that you can take in all of its subdued brilliance. The chemistry between the members of the group is apparent with every calculated pause and wink. The songs of The Long Surrender manage to sound both professional and loose, asking nothing more than your ear to take you to the group’s emotional epicenter, where it’s surprising how little you have to do to find some kind of resonance.

The clear center The Long Surrender is lead vocalist Karin Bergquist, who has been the core of Over the Rhine along with her husband, Linford Detweiler, since the group formed in 1990. She wears many hats on The Long Surrender, all of which are equally captivating. Whether it is sexy or lonely, Bergquist’s rasp holds a tone that embodies the mature and the assured. Her voice makes Over the Rhine sound like a folk-influenced lounge band, slinking throughout The Long Surrender’s arrangements with alacrity, whether she intents to play bold or meek. She pronounces her “s”’s like “sh”’s, giving her voice the slight vulnerability that keeps you from writing it off as saccharine or overproduced. She cannot help but come off as genial.

But Bergquist is more than just a pretty voice. The Long Surrender is a lyrical achievement for her, simply because she knows what phrases fit the mis en scene of the arrangements she’s given. A prime example of this is in “The Sharpest Blade”, where she silently slays her verses by ending each by musing, “I still dreamed of a love to outlive us / And I still prayed that this life will redeem us”, indicating the hope Bergquist’s character has for the relationship she fights to maintain. However, the descending melody that accompanies that phrase makes it clear to the listener that that goal will be a far from easy fight. This conflict between the love of the concept of love and the crushing sorrow of prolonged loneliness is thematic throughout The Long Surrender, as the album’s title would suggest. Bergquist sings the title of “There’s a Bluebird in My Window” with the same wonder for life that has befit generations of singers before her, but she repeats to her lover, “Why do you always make me drink alone”, making the insistence on the title seem more like a distraction from the problems of the protagonist rather than a coincidental delight.

The Long Surrender peaks when this pattern is broken, though. For six and a half minutes, Bergquist goes off on a rant as clever as anything I have ever heard on “Infamous Love Song”. She describes the relationship between herself and her partner with a candor that is, at times, hilarious, but consistently vivid. Her voice bears so much theatricality, I imagine her rolling on pianos in a dive bar in Cincinnati as she climbs Jacob’s ladder and high fives Cupid in her lyrics. And, as she keeps her head above the fray of realism in the verses, she always makes sure to dive down to where us mortals bear flaws to plead to her lover, “Baby, our love song must survive.”

There is a reason, though, that The Long Surrender is an A and not an A+, and that problem too lies with Bergquist’s delivery at times in the album. Although, for The Long Surrender’s majority, Bergquist is fun and insightful, her eyes are occasionally bigger than her stomach in terms of what she believes she can get away with singing. It’s slightly wince-inducing in the couple of times Bergquist references the “beebop apocalypse” in “Infamous Love Song”, and, in “Rave On”, she tries to make the phrase “Rock on” sound poignant, for which she barely succeeds. But, in “Only God Can Save Us Now”, she goes way off the edge when she tries to make the phrase “Fuzzy wuzzy wuzzy wuzzy wuzzy was a bear” sound like a slice of genius when sung in a rootsy country tune. It doesn’t. It’s the consequence of giving Bergquist so much face time on an album as long as The Long Surrender: she’s bound to come across a few clumsy phrases. In “Only God”, that line can make you go “What?” and take you out of the song for a couple seconds, but, for the most part, when Bergquist slips up, it’s easily forgiven in the context of an album as sonically rich as The Long Surrender.

Over the Rhine have never received the popularity that a group that has been around for as long as they have and has been so prolific deserves. However, they are the kind of band that, when introduced to others, conjure rave recognition (You’d be surprised how many 5 star reviews Over the Rhine have received by various publications over their twenty-year career). By definition, they’re a cult group, but that’s so strange to think about in reference to a group that made The Long Surrender, quite an accessible record whose themes any listener could relate to. So I’m doing my part to make the fantastic group, Over the Rhine, that much less esoteric; The Long Surrender cannot be underestimated as a masterpiece of soul-bearing Americana, and is destined to be one of the first hidden classics of this decade.