The Ark hosting the haunting, unique sounds of Over the Rhine
Over the Rhine have always shown an affinity — and a talent — for creating atmospheric, seductively moody music that sounds like it might have come from another time.
That is again the case on their latest disc, “The Long Surrender.” The disc shimmers with subtle, wistful melodies and arrangements that beautifully frame Karen Bergquist’s supple voice, which is so soothing it’s almost a sonic balm.
And, together with bandmate / husband Linford Detweiler, Bergquist writes songs full of evocative, often-rustic imagery that conjures a rural reverie clearly inspired by their surroundings — the couple live in a pre-Civil War farmhouse, out in the country, about 30 miles from Cincinnati.
“The first time I ever heard Karen sing, I was so drawn to her voice, and I remember feeling like she sings from the place where her pain lived,” says Detweiler by phone from that old farmhouse. “So, I do think her voice lends itself to certain kinds of songs.
“The ancient Greeks thought that music was the opposite of astronomy — that astronomy is about exploring the further reaches, and mapping what was way out there,” says Detweiler. “Whereas, they felt that music was about mapping the unknown places deep within — discovering parts of you that you weren’t even aware of, or waking up parts of you that you had forgotten even existed.
“And that’s something we’re definitely drawn to, and interested in.”
For their new disc, Over the Rhine — who come to The Ark on Tuesday — enlisted the ubiquitous producer Joe Henry, who over the last several years has helmed records by the likes of Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette, Susan Tedeschi, Loudon Wainwright III, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Elvis Costello and Mavis Staples — most of which have been critically hailed and / or won Grammy Awards.
“Joe was very involved in shaping the record,” says Detweiler. “He helped narrow down the song selection, and chose the musicians, and co-wrote a couple of songs. He did a great job of putting the band together. Working with him was like leaning into a really good dance partner.”
Detweiler said they didn’t really decide in advance what the record should sound like — what kind of arrangements or textures it would have: “Sometimes, in the past, we have a sound in mind when we go into the studio, but this time, we thought it would be exciting to make a record where we couldn’t imagine the sound in advance.
“Our demos were very simple, so we sort of discovered the sound of the record as it was being made.”
As for Henry’s primary role as a producer, Detweiler says that “Joe puts most of his energy into figuring out which musicians to bring on board. He puts a lot of thought into that. And once he does that, he sort of slowly steps back, because he really wants to be surprised by what they create as they are capturing the essence of the song.”
Some of the songs bring to mind the torchy efforts of Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, like "The King Knows How," "There's a Bluebird in My Heart" and "Days Like These," which are simultaneously brooding and seductive.
A couple of others examine heartache, like "Sharpest Blade" and "Undamned." On the latter, Berquist engages in a emotive duet with guest Lucinda Williams. Elsewhere, "Only God Can Save Us Now" and "All My Favorite People" are held aloft by achingly lovely melodies.
Detweiler and Bergquist often write about relationships, in their various stages, but Detweiler says he is mostly interested in exploring mature relationships, instead of writing about the first bloom of love. “I think those are more interesting, and more complex,” he says.
Of course, when a husband-and-wife sing so many songs about relationships, there is always a temptation to think that all of the tunes are autobiographical.
“But Karen has gone on the record as saying that only one song on this album is about the two of us,” says Detweiler with a laugh — and that’s the slow-burning “Infamous Love Song.”
“On some of our records, we have been pretty open in terms of our relationship — like ‘Drunkard’s Prayer,’ which was essentially about a time in our marriage when we almost packed it in, and that record was a response to those events. But mostly in our songs, we like to bump up against some universal themes that anyone who has lived at all can relate to.”
“The Long Surrender” was a “fan-financed” record, says Detweiler. “We decided to stop pretending that record labels are relevant any more ... It’s much easier now for artists to connect with their audiences directly. When we were recording it with Joe, we realized that an adventure was unfolding, and invited people to come along for the ride — we asked our fans to buy a record that hadn’t been made yet, and 2,200 of them stepped forward.”
It worked like this: “We told people, ‘If you donate $15, we’ll send it to you before it’s released, with three bonus tracks and put your name on our website. If you donate $50, we’ll also send you all the demos, and print your name in the CD booklet. The largest donation we got was $10,000, from a lovely couple from Austin.
“We’re going down there to meet them, and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Writer and critic Kevin Ransom can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.