The Common Good
January 2008

A Reverence for Song

by Steve Thorngate | January 2008

The Trumpet Child, by Over the Rhine.

When comedian Gracie Allen took up painting, she determined to paint only masterpieces. The gag was that she didn’t know a thing about painting. But even the most skilled and inspired struggle to follow a gem; their efforts are frequently panned as “like the last one, but less good.” Musicians who release albums to wide acclaim often avoid this by coming back with changes of pace and experimentation, which at least sound different enough to avoid a sense of spinning wheels.

Over the Rhine is unlikely ever to top Good Dog Bad Dog (1996), an exquisite home recording of moody folk-pop songs. Still, The Trumpet Child is the best of the several very different albums the Ohio duo has put out since. It’s also the most adventurous—and what’s surprising is that its riskiest material is also its strongest.

Much of the album is tied together by an homage to the American songbook, to pop music rooted not in rock but in jazz and show music. “Stan­dards” records have become a rite of passage for Serious Pop Singers, and there’s no shortage of music that aims for a pre-war aesthetic. But rarely does someone channel the period’s compositional character—with its expansive harmonies and baroque flourishes—into fresh-sounding music.

The Trumpet Child pulls this off. In 11 original songs, Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler conjure (without mimicking) Cole Porter’s wit, Fats Waller’s swagger, and Kurt Weill’s drama. Producer Brad Jones dresses the songs up with horn lines, the retro wobble of unison strings, and a stylish but aggressive rhythm section; Detweiler’s always-sensitive piano is newly outspoken, even showy. Jones’ approach—three parts high-end lush and one part do-it-yourself weird—coaxes something new and potent out of the band.

Bergquist’s singing more than keeps up with all this sound. Her rich voice expresses gravity, sultriness, and play—not each on cue, like a Broadway diva, but all at once, like Ella Fitzgerald. Bergquist overindulges in varied pronunciation, affecting made-up accents with an abandon more distracting than cute. Still, the power and control with which she sings are an uncommon treat.

MANY SONGWRITERS want to address issues of injustice but aren’t interested in the sort of nakedly political songwriting in which songs are mere tools. Over the Rhine offers two good solutions to this problem: whimsy and introspection.

In “If a Song Could be President,” voters hum at the polls and “vote for a melody”; the song also name-checks a variety of country/roots heroes (for example, “Steve Earle would anchor the news”). Frustrated by his country’s leadership, Detweiler responds not with earnest 14-stanza protest but with playful fancy.

“Nothing is Innocent” is about citizens’ responsibility for the sins of empire, but it doesn’t rail against these sins or even detail them. Instead, it examines the responsibility itself. The result is more provocative and timeless than “Bush Went to War, and We Didn’t Do Much to Stop Him, Did We?” ever could be.

The title track has an even subtler political edge. “The Trumpet Child” is about the second coming, and it expresses well the explosive tension of Advent—the terrifying mystery of apocalypse and the hope that what Jesus brings is a profound reversal of the world’s injustices. Musically, the song exists at a peculiar junction of soul-infused pop and ’60s jazz; an instrumental coda pushes it toward a melancholy, loungey soundtrack. This shouldn’t work but does, and the track is deeply stirring.

Juxtaposed with such ambition, the album’s more straight-ahead songs are rather off-putting. One or two might belong on a different album; one, “Let’s Spend the Day in Bed,” belongs in the this-was-fun-but-let’s-never-release-it pile.

For the most part, however, the album lives up to the tough standard set by its opening line: “I don’t want to waste your time with music you don’t need.” The band offers fresh songs and arrangements that reflect both a passion for American song and an insistence on relevance over nostalgia. Over the years, this band has made some gorgeous recordings, gone down some serious rabbit holes, and knocked out some real clunkers. The Trumpet Child includes all three—making it fascinating, messy, and worthwhile.

Steve Thorngate, a former Sojourners intern, is an editor and writer in St. Paul, Minnesota. He blogs at www.stevethorngate.blogspot.com.

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