My entry in this series will come as no surprise to anyone. They were the first act I wrote about in these august pages, on their last trip to the UK, in 2017. Paul Russell nominated their album ‘Drunkards Prayer’ as a classic album in July, and while I might have picked a different one to represent them it is an album that tells us a lot about what makes them special, and why you should investigate them. But we’ll get back to that…
Over The Rhine started as a fairly run of the mill alternative/indie rock band, albeit one with a particularly talented singer. The core songwriting duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist matured and ultimately married and seemed to grow away from the need for a group. Guitarist Ric Hordinski has gone on to release some wonderful albums both under his own name and as Monk, and he and drummer Brian Kelley came back to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the final ‘group’ album, ‘Good Dog, Bad Dog’ in 2010. That album was the first watershed in the career of OTR, with a move to a more acoustic, intimate feel in their music. Detweiler and Bergquist spent much of 1999 and 2000 touring as part of the Cowboy Junkies expanded touring band.
In 2003 they released a double studio album, ‘Ohio’, which is where I found them on a magazine sampler and in the accompanying 5-star review and article. Their star rose in the US at least after ‘Ohio’. The aforementioned ‘Drunkards Prayer’ appeared in 2005 and marked watershed number 2 in their career. As Paul said in his review of that album: “Never has the complicated, raw and unpredictable path to true love been better laid bare than this beautiful, stunning collection of heartfelt, highly personal songs”.
‘The Trumpet Child’ from 2007 was the first for their own great Speckled Dog label, having parted ways with Virgin/Back Porch. Running their career on their own terms, and with their relationship issues behind them, the albums became introspective lyrically and gloriously textural musically. Bergquist’s voice has matured. She is capable of extraordinary intimacy in her singing, and is one of the finest, most expressive singers working today.
The lyrics continue to be confessional, from ‘Broken Angels’ on their most recent album ‘: “I want to take a break from heartache, drive away from all the tears I’ve cried. I’m a wasteland down inside. In the crawlspace under heaven, in the landscape of a wounded heart, I don’t know where to start”. They paint word pictures of life on the road and off it. ‘Infamous Love Song’ from 2012 album, ‘The Long Surrender’. “There’s nights when I mostly just feel like a thief. With a prized possession, a gleeful belief. That love’s both a joke, and a serious matter. You don’t quite know your muse, but you know when you’ve had her”.
There’s the string of live albums documenting their performances at all stages of the band’s life. Three Christmas albums that reflect their considered faith. The Nowhere Else Festival, held in their own music barn in rural Ohio, which attracts artists like Allison Moorer, Patty Griffin, Joe Henry, and Allison Russell. Linford Detweiler has produced 4 albums of solo piano improvisations. The latest just released, ‘Ten Songs Without Words’, is as with its predecessors’ sublime music that defies categorisation. Tours including their now legendary Christmas shows continue, but except for one date in Belfast where they are holding a songwriting retreat, no UK shows.
Why have they not made the breakthrough here? Several reasons, I think. Lack of promotion by their labels early on, the costs of touring with more than just the core duo, poor distribution. Oddly Holland has taken to them, they are playing four dates there this Autumn, but the UK seems immune to their particular brand of emotionally charged americana. If I talk about them, and I do often, anyone who has come across them has fallen under the spell, so I’ll keep trying.
Read Paul Russell’s examination of ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’ here.
Over The Rhine are best understood through their music. This is the best song from their early “indie” years. There’s an even better rough mix on outtakes album ‘Besides’.
The song that started the shift to the more emotional acoustic music, and in my view one the best songs of the last 30 years
It’s not all ballads and angst. Their great lost hit single.
Joe Henry produced 2 albums for them, got Linford to sing more and brought a new warmth to the Over The Rhine sound.