I still remember the night I first heard Over the Rhine. I was mostly into indie-rock and metal, and only went to hear them because some friends had invited me. It was ’92 when I walked into a dingy bar in Columbus, Ohio, and the stage was covered in candles, with little paths amongst the candle-light to a stool for each musician. When the band took the stage, it was like an angelic visitation – I don’t think I could even bring myself to clap during the performance. I sat still, jaw gaping wide, just taking in the subtle beauty – the understated excellence – of what poured from the stage. Needless to say, I’ve followed the band faithfully since.
That said, the Long Surrender, Over the Rhine’s 11th studio album, and – counting live CDs and compilations – 19th overall, took some well-spent listening to really come to terms with, even though it is truly one of the masterpieces of their catalogue.
Stylistically, Surrender… sits comfortably with their last two studio releases, The Trumpet Child and Drunkard’s Prayer, but with a crisp, cleaner, more professional sound, thanks to the excellent production work of Joe Henry. However, Joe Henry also – in part – is what made Surrender… a bit hard to swallow on the first few listens. Track two, “Sharpest Blade” – one of two songs which Joe co-wrote with the band – contains some chord progressions that take some getting used to, which could be a deterrent to the uninitiated, especially being so close to the front of the disc. Likewise, track four, “Soon”, which Joe also co-wrote, feels noticeably different from the rest of the CD. What this amounts to is a disc that doesn’t really get in the swing of things until about track 5, and doesn’t fully LAUNCH till track seven, “Only God can save us Now”. That’s not to say that one through four aren’t fine songs – in fact number three, “Rave On”, is one of the absolute highlights of the disc. It’s just that they take a little longer to get to know – the CD seems a bit like the shy kid in class until about midway through. Let me assure you, the shy kid is VERY much worth getting to know – he’s incredibly creative, complex, and layered – a continual surprise, and very nice, once you become friends with him. It just takes a little time.
The first surprise is the fore-mentioned “Rave On” based on a poem by B.H. Fairchild. The best word to describe it is UNHINGED. Karin’s vocals feel as though she’s in the middle of a nervous breakdown – desperate – on her last rope, and the music works perfectly to accent that imbalance, especially Joe’s use of a deep bass counter-rhythm during the intro that could alter your heartbeat if you crank it too loud.
The next truly shining moment is “Only God will save us Now”, a delicately humorous look at the return to childlikeness that oft happens in old age, through the eyes of a visit to a nursing home. It’s power is found in the almost laugh-out-loud silliness of lyrics like “How now brown cow” and “Fuzzy wuzzy fuzzy wuzzy was a bear”, which convinces you of the song’s innocence, so you are almost entirely unsuspecting when it turns on you, and reminds you of the fragility of your own life, and mental state. When the song is over, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.
Immediately following is the indie-folk, broken-hearted ballad, “Oh Yeah by the Way”, which again, always catches me off guard, juxtaposing off-hand comments with brutal remarks like “What a waste that I still love you, after the mess you’ve made”. Ouch. And it’s sung so sweetly – with such innocence. Double ouch.
Next, they unleash their current single, which manages to out-sexy their sexiest song to date – until now, “Trouble” – with a double dose. It’s a perfect hybrid of classical, old school pop (I mean “old school” as in 20s and 30s, not 70s or 80s), with modern indie-rock technique. It’s so breath-taking, even on a first listen, that I won’t even try to describe it any more: download it from iTunes immediately, and you’ll most definitely buy the rest of the CD when it comes available.
The Long Surrender is solid output from a great band, showcasing Karin’s beautiful voice, and Linford’s smooth piano, singing songs of a broken, grace-filled faith, and struggling, raw, humanity. That’s just to say, it’s really, truly beautiful: a masterpiece, sitting proudly alongside their best, even if it may take some time to get to know.
As you can tell, I’m still a fan. Thank you, Karin and Linford, for doing what you do. Please keep it up for many years to come.