When Over The Rhine released their first album I was 5. They started playing music when I was 3. They became a musical interest for me when I was about 20, just about the time I became a student at Calvin. I was coming off four years of high school filled to the brim with Eve 6, Our Lady Peace and fair heapings of Jason Mraz and Train. I don’t think I realized what I had been missing, or even what I wanted, in a musical experience. It took time for me to get that straight. I still don’t have much figured out. But I can tell you that Karin Bergquist kills it on stage. She’ll kick it on “Born” and make you smile on “I’m On A Role.” Karin and her husband Linford Detweiler have even tried their hands at children’s music, a fact about which I am still giddy.
One listens to Over The Rhine for many reasons. I caught on to their knack for storytelling and their unique perception of the human condition. Consider a few particularly pointed stanzas from “Born”
We've seen the landfill rainbow
We've seen the junkyard of love
Baby it's no place for you and me
I was born to laugh
I learned to laugh through my tears
I was born to love
I'm gonna learn to love without fear
Over The Rhine lay it on thick. But that approach is tied up with their appeal. For instance, take the furry, almost hymn like, “Undamned” from OTR’s latest The Long Surrender. Karin doesn’t pull any punches when she sings,
I've got a thousand lost songs
(Far too many they just got away)
I've done a thousand things wrong
(Far too many for me to name)
But I'm not too far gone
Into the arms that love me.
This sense that things can be recovered shoots through OTR’s entire catalog. I can remember clearly not knowing what to make of this fact when I first started listening to Over The Rhine. I think I had convinced myself that music worth listening to had to be more honest about the way things are, which, to my amateurish and iconoclastic 20 year old brain meant “things are bad, and the world is falling apart, hope isn’t so easy.” But then I grew up a little. And I started to see Over The Rhine in the light I wish I had as a younger college student. Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview that makes things clearer. When asked how the band deals with the pressure and expectations they place on themselves, Linford responds by saying that if they don’t believe in what they are doing,
"let somebody else do it. If we don’t believe that we’re doing good work, we’ll just leave that space for somebody else to fill. I think the great thing about being a songwriter is that you are swept up into something that’s much bigger than yourself, whether it’s the tradition that you’re a part of or just music in general which is so spiritual and goes so deep and means so much to people. I like that idea of setting the bar high and being open to tiny miracles."
I routinely need to remind myself that music doesn’t need to be able to solve all of our problems. But I really like Linford’s summary. So, if I had known in college what I know now, namely that it’s not all so bad, I probably would have appreciated Over The Rhine for who they are: remarkably talented musicians who happen to care deeply about the life of the world. I aim to follow their example.
- John Scherer