The Upshot: There’s no denying that when you stick to what you’re good at, you get very good at it – and that’s just their marriage! Yet, this talented couple have managed to turn real life into a bona fide art form that inspires the spirit as it soothes the heart.
BY ERIC THOM
Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist (aka Over The Rhine) are hardly spring chickens at this stage. The Ohio-based couple released their first – Till We Have Faces – back in ’90 (cassette), while Love & Revelation marks their 15th recording. Despite the inevitable road rash and scar tissue one might expect over any 30-year relationship, the duo remains a fresh and largely unpredictable musical force, skilled at communicating their inner states of contentment and mutual respect with each musical outing. That’s some feat.
What had begun as, by their own definition, “post-nuclear, pseudo-alternative, art-tinged folk-pop”, has gathered maturity and insight over time, the two remaining just as hopeful and thoroughly optimistic as they did when they first began so many years ago. Fans of Over The Rhine (OTR) have grown along with each experiment they’ve ever made and seem the better for it, the duo transforming their ‘life as art’ notions into a burgeoning musical family, nestled into their 20+ acre Nowhere Else Farm near Martinsville, Ohio.
Although the eleven tracks contained on Love & Revelation address themes related to the aging process – with topics ranging from grief and loss to managing disappointment and even fatalism – the music manages to transcend any and all darkness, transporting the listener to the joyful, ever-positive state that has its roots in their Ohio home (also the site of their annual Memorial Day festival). It is here, with an earthy appreciation for each colorful strand of calming sunset, each bloom of fresh lilac and every sacred Killdeer egg (guarded by Porter the cattle dog), OTR might sound like some ostentatious social experiment that shouldn’t have happened, let alone survive. Yet it did and it has. And the result is a down-home, creative hotbed of songwriting and fresh musical ideas – as if they grow them out of the good soil itself. With maturity comes wisdom and a weathered perspective. They seem to own the category of ‘melancholy’ – the clouds and overall greyness of the dramatic cover photo seemingly representative of what might be found inside. Yet, just as blues music can prove uplifting, these sturdy originals are as packed with as much optimism as they are with distress.
Both songwriters possess a gift and Bergquist’s otherworldly vocals captivate as they stir the senses. The contribution of this powerful duo’s band – the Band of Sweethearts – cannot be overlooked. Masters of their instruments, their ability to create the atmospherics critical to OTR’s sound is without peer: Jay Bellerose (drums/percussion), Greg Leisz (pedal steel, guitars, mandolin), Jennifer Condos (bass), Patrick Warren (keyboards, piano, orchestrations) and Bradley Meinerding (guitars, mandolin, vocals). The multi-talented Detweiler adds vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, Wurlitzer and electric piano while Bergquist adds acoustic guitar to her robust, authoritative and highly distinctive vocals. The ambience that happens behind her voice only adds to the overall level of enchantment of the band’s sound, taking nothing away from Bergquist’s eloquent sense of expression. And lest this description conjure visions of utter gloom, doom and wet handkerchiefs, exactly the opposite is true. Consider Bergquist’s own “Los Lunas”, which begins with simple acoustic guitar and drums. As Bergquist’s delicate spell is cast, pedal steel further elevates the sad split between an incongruous couple. Detweiler’s piano and Patrick Warren’s soft keyboards underline the somber separation.
Likewise, Bergquist’s mournful tone persists throughout “Given Road” as subtle effects – Bellerose’s masterful percussive touches, Leisz’s weeping pedal steel and Warren’s gentle orchestration all serve to underline the heartache of long-lost love. Before sustained exposure to this much bleakness can become burdensome, the calibre of OTR’s collective songwriting saves the day. The next three compositions are nothing if not stunning examples of exquisite songwriting. Although the Bergquist/Detweiler duet of “Let You Down” somewhat breaks the intimate spell created by Bergquist’s solo efforts, the song touts the strength and dependability of their relationship and, fresh touches like Warren’s B3 and the electric slide of Bradley Meinerding, keep the commitment buoyant, sincerely so, rather than err on the sappy side.
One of the disc’s strongest tracks is the beautiful, co-written “Broken Angels” – a near-perfect song that’s all about healing in a world too big to control. Acoustic guitar and Detweiler’s simpatico piano join the subtle skills of this sensitized band to focus on the sheer beauty of Bergquist’s voice. Likewise, the title track is head-turning – benefitting from Bellerose’s percussive gifts as Bergquist turns up her feminine wiles, injecting a more upbeat groove, revealing another layer of her musical personality. Powerful stuff – built around its distinctive drum sound. Beautiful piano and acoustic guitar set up the beguiling “Making Pictures’ as the band builds a lush backdrop of strings, pedal steel and light orchestration resembling the gentle swells of the sea. The mould is broken somewhat on Detweiler’s own “Betting On The Muse”, his voice tending to cancel out Bergquist’s on this highly personal duet, one that further illuminates their special relationship. Bergquist’s own “Leavin’ Days”, with its love vs. hate struggle, is the lone weak link in the chain – melody-lite, despite the contributions of Leisz and Meinerding’s mandolins. Instantly redeemed, the couple’s “Rocking Chair” has a life all its own – an infectious, ‘electric piano-driven’ ditty that is instantly memorable and enhanced by both electric and acoustic guitar, delivered with a slight country edge by Greg Leisz. Originally tagged a Christian band, “May God Love You (Like You’ve Never Been Loved)”, is the only outward reference to faith and is, nonetheless, a dynamic, yet delicate statement written by Detweiler and sung beautifully by Bergquist, the band treating the very personal sentiments with gentle reverence. If there could be a perfect song to close on – especially in light of such an emotional work-out – it would have to be Detweiler’s achingly beautiful “An American In Belfast”. With keyboards and pedal steel subservient to Detweiler’s deftly-played acoustic guitar – and only a hint of Bergquist’s humming in the background, this is a mere two minutes you’d wish was closer to twenty. Insightful. Revelatory. Ever-hopeful.
Breathtakingly beautiful. Uplifting. Love & Revelation is an articulate and deeply intimate reminder that life is beautiful and, no matter how hard it might seem to get, it’s always worth celebrating – resilience champions over the dark side. Once these songs set their sweet, impassioned hooks, they’ll soon become the perfect complement to everything you do.