Album Review: Over the Rhine – “The Long Surrender” (Great Speckled Dog)
By Jim Simpson
Karin Bergquist (half of the husband/wife duo at the core of Over the Rhine since 1991) could sing a grocery list and make it compelling, so just imagine her smoldering vocals and unique phrasing on such lines as “I sing the bebop apocalypse/Lean into you, God’s hands on my hips/Grip the midnight microphone/Steel every cell of my flesh and bone/I wrestle my angel in smoky stage lights/Climb Jacob’s Ladder two thousand more flights.”
These lines from “Infamous Love Song” — there are many such stirring moments on The Long Surrender — combine with others on the album’s 13 tracks of sublime drama and dripping emotion to form a complete and utterly enthralling whole.
Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Bergquist and husband Linford Detweiler teamed up with producer Joe Henry (Mavis Staples, Elvis Costello, Loudon Wainwright III), who co-wrote two of the tracks, in this work of cinematic scope with hints of Brechtian brilliance and echoes of Lady Day’s emotionally wrought middle career crooning.
The ubiquitous Lucinda Williams lends her voice in a duet with Bergquist on “Undammed”, and the two are practically mirror images of eachother, with the former lending a bit more gravel.
The Long Surrender and the track “Rave On” both feature lines from the poem by B.H. Fairchild, also called “Rave On.” Poetry appears to be crucial to Bergquist, as she used Bukowski’s “Bluebird” as fleeting inspiration for the slow torchy jazz of “There’s A Bluebird In My Heart”. Obviously, Bergquist knows her stuff, for the album’s resulting feel is one of poetic seduction.
There’s also an air of patience and letting go on the record, themes of maturity and allowing events to unfold over the long haul, not trying to force or sway issues too much while finding grace in humor. In what seems like a story about a collection of oddball church members in “Only God Can Save Us Now” (“Bob leads the congregation when he sings How Now Brown Cow … Jean says Fuzzy wuzzy fuzzy wuzzy was a bear … Miss Cleve sings Hallelujah from the choir in her chair”) is actually an ode to the nursing home residents with whom Bergqauist’s mother, after suffering a debilitating stroke, resides. It’s enough to bring a tear as well as a laugh of recognition to anyone with aging parents.
One of the many highlights is “The King Knows How” which weaves references to Elvis and Hank Williams sung with enough enthralling phrasing and inflection to make even the most jaded Billie Holiday fan simply glow inside. The ache and longing is palpable when Bergquist sings “I’m as lonely as anybody/Who’s cryin’ on a Friday night./You know that lonesome Whippoorwill?/I know a girl who is bluer still.”
This is one we highly recommend.