Over the Rhine – The Long Surrender (review)

Over the Rhine – The Long Surrender (Great Speckled Dog) review

It’s refreshing to see a band grow and improve, even after making music for over 20 years.  Over the Rhine hails from Cincinnati and is the product of the husband-wife duo Karin Bergquist (lead vocals, guitar) and Linford Detweiler (piano, guitar & vocals).  Although they’ve made several fantastic albums, The Long Surrender may be their finest yet.

With their last few releases, they’ve ventured further and further away from traditional pop songs, and with this album, they’ve left the pop world completely behind.  Which means there isn’t anything as instantly gratifying as “Show Me” off 2003’s Ohio, or “Lookin’ Forward” from 2005’s Drunkard’s Prayer. Instead, the band concentrates on mood pieces with sparse arrangements; these songs take longer to sink in, but are more satisfying with each listen.

The album is dominated by earthy instrumentation – acoustic guitars, piano, and mandolin, but is augmented by the unique percussion of Jay Belerose, who gave a similar treatment to Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand – there are times when you’re not sure what sort of instrument he’s banging on – is that a bathtub on “The King Knows How”?

The album opens with the warm and inviting “The Laugh of Recognition,” featuring mandolin, acoustic guitar and piano.  Credit needs to go to producer Joe Henry, who understands better than anyone how to use emptiness to fill up a track.  Nowhere else is this better than on the cinematic “Rave On,” a B.H. Fairchild poem set to music.  The cut opens with a hypnotic acoustic guitar and a thumping sub-note bass, with Bergquist invoking the spirit of some lost blues singer.  As the song builds, strange backward loops and hollow percussion appear, until it climaxes in a swirling end.  The band is joined by Lucinda Williams for “Undamned” – her raspy delivery makes an excellent counterpoint to Bergquist’s.  “There’s a Bluebird in My Heart” has a classic American Songbook feel – you’d swear it’s a Cole Porter cover.

What really stands out in The Long Surrender is just how great a singer Karin Bergquist has become (for evidence on how much she’s grown, dial up “Like a Radio” – one of their earliest singles from the early ‘90’s).  She evokes a matronly tone on “Laugh,” turns on the twang for “Only God Can Save Us Now,” then belts out the blues on “Infamous Love Song,” all the while, twisting and bending notes.   The album closes with the gospel singalong “All My Favorite People,” which makes you want to clap your hands for the finale.

This record was funded largely by their own fans, and one of the accompanying inserts lists everyone who contributed to the project.  The other booklet is full of excellent black and white photography, adding to the stark mood of the album.

Equal parts grandiose and sparse, The Long Surrender has a timeless sound which improves with each listen.  –Tony Peters