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.