Ohio: The Heart of It All

Over the Rhine's latest CD taps new sources but remains relatively true to their identifiable sound

I recently mentioned to a friend that Over the Rhine was going to be an upcoming cover story subject in an issue of CityBeat, the band's hometown weekly paper. His reaction summed up the under-the-radar status OtR seems to have sometimes in the "Local Music Scene."

"I'm sorry," he said, starting his response with an apologetic tone, "but do they even matter anymore?"

The retort was understandable, given the band's low profile on the local front in recent years. But, in a scene where at least one-third of the artists think a record, publishing or management deal is the be-all, end-all, another third just wants creative freedom and relative isolation to explore their hobby to the fullest and the remainder are trying to make a living, here's a band with all of those aspects rolled into one.

They have a major label deal with an imprint known for allowing acts to develop without "I don't hear a single" nibblings at their ears. It provides an assumedly modest income. And they remain in a city far enough away from biz-central that distractions are minimal.

In multi-instrumentalist Linford Detweiler and singer Karin Bergquist's music comes the sense of self-controlled empowerment. The OtR braintrust has more in common with "career artists" like Neil Young or Tom Petty but without the orneriness that boils the blood of label execs counting on a bottom line.

It's Over the Rhine's seemingly infinite artistic liberty that first comes to mind when digging into their double-disc opus, Ohio, their latest for Back Porch/Virgin. The label might not bankroll an Over the Rhine Rap/Metal album, but they trust the band's instincts enough to follow them on their journeys (nowadays, how many non-Gold-record-selling, major-label artists are given permission to release a two-disc set?).

The trip through Ohio is a far more expansive journey than any of their past recordings. While they do traipse through uncommon ground, the gentle, ethereal sound of OtR still is instantly recognizable.

OtR's emotive, airy atmospherics have been their most obvious trademark, but that lilt is something they've had to artfully adapt over the years, particularly with the loss of guitarist Ric Hordinski and the shift toward a more grounded sound. On Ohio (and the slightly less organic but still stunning previous album, Films For Radio), the duo is far from relying on a sonic fog machine for candle-lit ambiance anymore, dispensing a sparseness that utilizes basic elements — piano, light drums, sparse acoustic and electric guitar, pedal steel — that somehow still manages to create a spacious haze.

The band's mystical glide on Ohio's "What I'll Remember Most," "Long Lost Brother" and the astonishing, nostalgic title track translates more soulfully than ever, the warm minimalism and immediacy of the album's production drawing out the songs' essence like a seductive spell. The "hushed lullaby" mannerisms of old OtR material are given a seductive intimacy here that makes them more strikingly beautiful than ever.

OtR has always had a knack for timeless Pop songcraft, and Ohio is liberally sprinkled with a smattering of rootsy melodic gems, including the instantly memorable "Show Me" and the boozy "Jesus in New Orleans." Bergquist's soul-stirring vocals are perfect for the more expansive material, but she also has the ability to boldly deliver a hook to great effect.

While those techniques are developed to the point of excellence here with their natural maturity as musicians and songwriters, these are things OtR has always done. The disc contains some of the finer songwriting moments in their canon, but it's the relatively precarious chances they take as you get deeper into Ohio that are most interesting, collapsing the sometimes redundant, cyclical hum and making the album all the more alluring.

It's like going to an overly cordial friend's house for an overnight stay and being accommodated with pillows, blankets, Scrabble, Classical music and warm milk. When they break out the Parliament records and Ecstasy, you know you'll remember your stay forever.

While Bergquist and Detweiler retain their innate subtlety and earnest tack throughout, the little stylistic jumps are what makes Ohio most engaging — even her uttering "fucked up" on "Changes Come" creates a poignant rise. "Lifelong Fling" is a surprisingly impacting slice of Neo Soul, devoid of over-reaching artifice and tempered by the band's distinct, singular affability. On "Nobody Number One," Bergquist displays her still-in-character brand of spoken "rap," which doesn't really work but still is a revitalizing diversion.

Elsewhere, "When You Say Love" is a rare moment of giddy jubilance, thanks to an endearingly awkward keyboard spaz-out that sounds lifted from an early Elvis Costello and the Attractions record. The Gospel choir chants in the closing number, "Idea #21 (Not Too Late)," is the ideal exit for an album that at times feels like a real-time spiritual quest.

While "double albums" are a vintage Rock & Roll move, in these days of gratuitously long CDs the question of their necessity is begged. The short answer is Ohio would be a better single disc collection — it's crammed with 21 "good" songs but only about two-thirds worth of "great" ones.

By the end of the epic, you're left a little drained. Still, the gesture of a double album somehow perfectly fits OtR's mysterious, romantic and fantasist demeanor. It creates a glorious golden frame for the band's majestic canvas.

To answer my friend's question: Yes, Over the Rhine matters. Artistically, they're as vital as ever. Ohio is low-key brilliance and stands as their best work yet in a strong discography that gets better with time.
Grade - B

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