Wednesday, April 06, 2005

on how over the rhine stole my heart

A Review of Drunkard's Prayer

I need to get a tape recorder.

This is my first thought as I feel/hear the rumble that marks my slow drift across the single white line to the left of Highway 50 -- those gutteral bumps warning me that I'm dangerously close to crashing my sweet, little car into the ditch, whereafter I'd enjoy either a quick, fiery, explosive release, or a slow, crushing, painful death. It would have been weird to have died on the same day as Pope John Paul II, but that, in fact, was not my fate.

Luckily, I had the sense to drop my pen and stop trying to write down my first thoughts upon hearing Over the Rhine's new release, Drunkard's Prayer. Also luckily, I had two more pens handy so that I didn't have to go searching for the one I dropped under my seat. I'm usually pretty good at writing while not looking at the page being written upon. However, I am not so hot at writing while steering a ton of plastic and metal through a rain storm while also trying to maintain the velocity of a cheetah pursuing its prey. Is this something I should practice more often in order to achieve competency? My conscience says no....but it'd be pretty darn cool if that were the thing I was best at.

Anyways, let's get this one fact out of the way first: Linford Detweiler composes amazing waltzes. This seems a lost art nowadays -- the art of the waltz. 3/4 time isn't so cool in pop music anymore, except as a rare novelty. Linford blows the dust from the bookcase and the socks off 99% of today's songwriters and brings it back into fashion like it's his job. Because it is. This man writes songs. And damn good ones at that.

Not to minimize the contributions of his wife/songwriting partner, Karin Bergquist. Karin's voice flew off its hinges on Ohio, belting out Gospelish and Countryesque pop songs like a blind badger in a room full of midgets. *I have absolutely no idea what that means, either. But it still seems to perfectly describe how Karin kicks the ass of every lyric she meets, making it her own, whether written by her own hand, her husband's, or some famous guestwriter like Neil Young, Dido or Jagger/Richards.*

They make quite a team, these two. And Drunkard's Prayer is a living testament to the strength of the blood that flows between their veins. Recorded in the living room of the Grey Ghost, the old house of many stories told to rapt audiences all across the midwest, Drunkard's Prayer sounds like Over the Rhine without really mimicking any of their previous records. Though it is another home recording, it lacks the bare-bones, apartment-starkness of Good Dog Bad Dog. It's definitely a post-Ohio home record, yet it doesn't try to duplicate the heights and richness of that album either. It stands alone, like the cheese at the end of "The Farmer and the Dell," content to radiate a warmth and uniqueness all its own.

That being said, most of these songs would not have felt all that out of place on Ohio. It's when they're brought together in this way (a pinch of this, a dab of that) that things take on the shape and color of Drunkard's Prayer. I'm sure much is being written as we speak of how Karin and Linford's marriage nearly fell apart sometime last year, and how only through ending their tour early and returning to the Grey Ghost to hash things out did they rekindle the old blah, blah, blah...

I'm sure there's a great story behind every album, but you won't find that here. What we're talking about here isn't the facts of the album, it's the fictions that listening to this album creates. It's wondering if Detweiler/Bergquist would have been bigger than James Taylor and Carol King had their albums come out in the early 70s. It's wondering how long it would have taken before they toured the country with Neil Young & Crazy Horse. It's wondering what Shoot Out The Lights would have felt like had Richard & Linda Thompson stayed up late sipping wine until everything that needed to be said had been said. No one writes music like this these days. Jackson Browne couldn't make an album like this again were he to sell his soul to God and Satan. And to top it off, Mr. Browne's voice has got nothing on Ms. Bergquist's. Why Ohio didn't go double platinum and grace the cover of Rolling Stone is a testament to the power of the fleetingness of public fashion. Double albums went out of vogue some time ago, just like the waltz, upright bass, and the sax solo (we can thank Kenny G for murdering our appetite for the latter). And throwback albums only work these days if you sound like Duran Duran, Gang of Four or Joy Division. Somehow we skipped from MC5 and Iggy Pop to New Wave without realizing what we missed.

Growing up means inadvertently growing old as well. And growing old means thinking of the future as not just the future, but as the here and now. But wherever my here, and whenever my now, I want to have Karin and Linford along for the ride. It might be the biggest commitment I've ever made in my so-far fairly short life, but Over the Rhine are the one band I want to grow old with. I've had my one-night stands (Dave Matthews/bad idea); my summer flings (Chris Carrabba); my bad breakups with high-school bands I never that I'd part with (Pearl Jam); I've had my on-again-off-again crushes (Fiona Apple) and my decade-long friendships (Oh, Rivers). But Karen and Linford are the only songwriters I want to stick with through thick and thin -- to buy their albums with eager eyes and hopeful ears. To consume whatever it is that they're fixin'. Who cares if Drunkard's Prayer isn't the best album they've made so far? It is a damn fine album, and it desires my time and energy. It depends on it. It commands it. And it deserves it.

If you haven't heard much Over the Rhine, Ohio and Good Dog Bad Dog might be better places to start. But you'll miss out on the agonizing first minute of track three, where you might go mad waiting for Karen to sing something, all the while enjoying the sounds of the Grey Ghost in summer as Linford plays along with the crickets. You'll miss OtR's aching version of My Funny Valentine, where Linford plays like he does on his solo recordings (lounging, with awkward pauses) while an upright bass courtesy of Byron House makes it sound like a lost gem from The Darkest Night of the Year. And you'll miss Karin's first words of the album, so important that she repeats them not once, but twice, "I want you to be my love."

Because, in the end, cutting away the fictions and the fat and the rating of this album alongside the rest of the OtR catalogue, this is a record about longing, and foolishness, and quiet nights, and bends along the roads that lead home. It's a subtle album, recorded at home, with friends and family, offered at twilight with eyes uncertain, yet filled with the warmth of the midday sun.

It's the closest thing to going home you'll find short of being transported back in time. And it's a little bit of that, too. It does not disappoint.

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