Over the Rhine - Live at Eddie's Attic!

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The Long Surrender, the new studio album from the southern Ohio-based husband-and-wife team of multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Linford Detweiler and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Karin Bergquist, otherwise known as Over the Rhine, is something rare and wondrous — an intimate epic. Shot through with the joys and sorrows of modern-day existence and the unchanging fundaments of the human condition, the album has the feel of a living thing, senses alert, feet planted firmly on terra firma.

The album title “speaks to our ongoing desire to let go of certain expectations (and much of what we are so convinced we know for sure) in favor of remaining open and curious,” Karin explains. “It seems like many of our friends are currently wrestling with various forms of ‘letting go,’ so hopefully, the ideas conjured by the title feel somewhat universal. And I think the title speaks to the arc of a lifelong commitment to writing and performing regardless of recognition. Learning when to work hard and when to let go. Learning to leave room for grace to billow our sails occasionally. Learning not to white-knuckle everything.”

The fan-funded record, to be released on OtR’s own Great Speckled Dog label (named after the couple’s Great Dane, Elroy), will see the light of day 20 years after their 1991 debut. It’s the bountiful result of a collaboration between the couple and producer Joe Henry, whose songs and recordings they’ve long admired. “Joe has been quietly making records (well, not that quietly; he has won at least two Grammys) that don’t sound like other records being made in 2010,” Linford points out. “They are a little bit dark and cinematic and funky and unpredictable. It seems like he loves to help performers who have already covered a lot of miles — people like Mavis Staples, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke, Loudon Wainwright III, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Mose Allison — rediscover the soul of what they do in new light.”

Going in, the expectations of these three fiercely intelligent, soulful artists were as wide-open as the horizon stretching out from the Southern California desert, each of them eager to discover where their shared journey would take them. “With The Long Surrender, our vision was ‘to make a record that we couldn’t imagine in advance.’” says Linford. “We wanted to be surprised. We wanted to remain open, let the record unfold in real time. Fortunately, Joe loves to be surprised as well.”

Driving them was the wealth of material they’d come up with — songs containing little mysteries of their own to be unlocked through the process of bringing them to life. As Karin recalls, “Joe referenced Astral Weeks early on and pointed out that the songs on that record were quite traditional in nature in terms of their form, but ‘the seams had been blown out…’ That particular observation lodged in our imaginations like a call to arms. Yes. We were going to California to blow the seams out of our songs.”

In his perceptive liner notes, as much free verse as prose, Henry writes: “Before their arrival on my turf, my communication with them had been a fast flurry of emails, occasional phone conferences, and the bundles of song that I’d find sporadically filling my morning’s inbox. I had imagined an elaborate life for the two of them, stitched together from a few threadbare facts and scrap references, and from the séance-like voices that their demos used to address me. I pictured Karin and Linford in the attic of their Civil War-era house in the rural outskirts of Cincinnati, huddled beneath a swinging bare bulb, shooing away pigeons, and confiding songs-in-progress into an old German-made reel-to-reel recorder….

“I am not suggesting that these songs as I first heard them sounded in any way anachronistic; but rather that they shimmered in some amber band of light that stood outside of time…hung like blue smoke in rafters. And Karin and Linford brought with them, in fact, the greatest gift one can bring to a collaborative outing, that being an abiding faith in, and a continuing wonder at the mystery involved in the process.”

On Monday, May 17, Detweiler and Bergquist arrived at The Garfield House in South Pasadena for the first day of recording. By Friday afternoon, the album was complete. “We walked away feeling like we had just experienced the week of a lifetime,” says Linford. The near-miraculous speed with which it was made is attributable in large part to the song-serving musicians Henry had intuitively chosen for the project: drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist David Piltch, pedal steel and all-things-stringed player Greg Leisz, keyboard sound-scapists Keefus Ciancia and Patrick Warren and Joe’s son Levon on tenor sax, along with soul singers James Gilstrap, Niki Haris and Jean McClain. This simpatico posse didn’t so much surround Karin and Linford as meld with them and their songs. “They were all wonderful conjurers and co-conspirators,” Linford marvels. “A significant number of the tracks on the record are first takes. We landed ’em like glistening, silvery fish, everyone playing together, Karin singing (and often playing) live with the band for every take.”

“The long surrender” is a phrase that turns up in a poem by B.H. Fairchild called “Rave On,” which became the jumping off point for Karin’s smoldering song of the same title. “It wasn’t so much an adaptation of the poem, more of a flirtation,” Linford explains. The poem references Buddy Holly’s iconic “Rave On,” and so does her lyric: “Blastin’ Buddy on the radio/The Baptist wheat fields rolling low/Rock on/Rave on.” Karin also found a Bukowski poem called “Bluebird,” which in turn led to “There’s a Bluebird in My Heart.” Linford concludes, “She’s feeling some common ground between what she wants her songs to do and what a good poem can still do to her.”

And what songs these are, teasing at first, but revealing more and more with each listening, seemingly without end. Karin provides the back story for the album-opening, zeitgeist-capturing “The Laugh of Recognition”: “We’ve had friends who lost everything (their entire life’s work and savings) in the latest crash — friends who worked so hard and thought they had built something that would last. So this became a song that speaks to making a new start, retaining dignity in the face of uncertainty.”

“Sharpest Blade,” which sounds like some just-unearthed Billie Holiday torch song, is the first song the couple wrote with Henry. “Joe submitted this strange and wonderful lyric, which we expanded on and wrote music for,” Karin explains. Karin and Joe also conspired on “Soon.” “I wrote the music and melody for this one but struggled to complete a lyric that felt relevant,” she recalls. “I asked Joe if he was interested in taking a crack at it. He knocked out the lyric one morning before breakfast. It contains some of our favorite lines on the record, including ‘the gift of your heart frees me from mine.’”

The hushed, drop-dead gorgeous ballad “Undamned,” which evokes a campfire gathering under a canopy of stars in a John Ford western, finds Karin and Lucinda Williams trading off lines. “We didn’t think this song was going to make the cut,” says Linford, “but Joe had a feeling about it and sent it to Lucinda. She offered to sing on it and was very encouraging about the writing and Karin’s voice. Karin and I have been huge fans of Lu, so believe me, when she opened her mouth to sing into that microphone, tears flowed. I like the fact that the song references an old hymn we used to sing called ‘Just as I Am.’”

Set in a nursing home, where Karin has spent countless hours since her mom suffered a devastating stroke nine years ago, the humorous and heart-wrenching “Only God Can Save Us Now” celebrates the tenacity of the human spirit. “We came to describe the nursing home as ‘a head-on collision between comedy and tragedy,’” says Karin. “Obviously, we’ve gotten to know many of the residents there and have found it impossible to ignore them and their stories. And we have our favorites. For example, once I leaned in to ask one of the residents, a little bird-like woman named Geneva, ‘How are you today, Geneva?’ She replied, ‘Only God can save us now…’”

“The King Knows How” moves the record out onto the dance floor, fusing body and soul. “I had a feeling about this song and really pushed for it,” says Karin, “and the singers that Joe brought in were like a tornado of joy that whirled it into fruition.”

Even more than their earlier records, The Long Surrender seamlessly interweaves the disparate idiosyncratic strains that form the many-colored crazy quilt of American music. “We’re really only reflecting what we’ve already heard,” Linford explains, “a mix of all the music we grew up with and were drawn to: old gospel hymns, the country and western music on WWVA, the rock and roll records the kids at school passed around, the symphonic music that my father brought home, the jazz musicians we discovered in college, the Great American Songbook performers that Karin’s mother loved, and of course the various singer-songwriters that eventually knocked the roof off our world. But when this music is reflected back to the listener through the filter of our own particular lives, hopefully it becomes a much different experience (maybe even somewhat unique) for those with ears to hear.”

As Joe puts it, “We settled for…luminance over order, for terse beauty and a smeared-lipstick brand of soul; for spot-welding over handicraft; for leaving ‘the edges wild,’ as Linford’s father had once so richly advised him, and for never comparing this particular journey to any other. I hear this batch of songs now the way the last one of them, All of My Favorite People, seems to see the world: as naked in its finery, fiercely tender, and thorny with sweet promise; as heroically humbled, and broken to the point of availing true light to anyone who cares to look inside…. I am not in the business of dispelling mysteries, only abiding with them when invited. Mystery is life’s strange and glorious weather, so to speak. And this time, Over the Rhine brought it with them.”

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