Over the Rhine, Drunkard’s ...
By Thomas Nash
April 29, 2005
“I want you to be my love … ’neath the moon and stars above … I want you to be my love.” It is with this earnest plea of “I Want You to Be My Love” that the husband-and-wife team of Karen Bergquist and Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine begin Drunkard’s Prayer. This exquisite piece of artful folk-pop is followed in kind by 10 more songs of nearly equal value. I realize that this is a rather brash statement; however, it is completely appropriate in the case of Drunkard’s Prayer.
The next song, “Born,” continues the line of great song-craft with a seemingly simple but compelling melody that ultimately proves to be a one of the most endearing songs Over the Rhine have ever written. The song paints a stark picture of two lovers contemplating the end of their relationship. The song details the struggle, but juxtaposes the starkness with a deep grace as the lovers talk “deep into the night” over bottles of wine, hoping to restore a warmth in their relationship. With its hushed piano complementing shimmering and contrite vocals, “Born” is certain to be a favorite of many.
The album’s title track doesn’t disappoint either. In fact, many aspiring songwriters would go to great lengths to write a ballad half this stunning. But they’d fail if they tried to write a song like this. If it wasn’t based on true events, “Drunkard’s Prayer” might sound contrived. But when you find out that the duo of Over the Rhine lived through this situation, you realize this is a very classy torch song.
The first three tracks, though all beautiful, belie the fact that the album has not yet peaked. Even more amazing is the fact that Drunkard’s Prayer may not peak at all. While the album is thoroughly consistent in style and direction, it never becomes the victim of urbanity.
So what style of music is Over the Rhine? Genre titles can be quite misleading. They are especially misleading in describing this album. In some respects Drunkard’s Prayer isn’t far from the piano-driven stylings of Sarah McLachlan. But then there are other aspects that lead into the territory of Norah Jones. However, as soon as you get used to these influences, shades of Billie Holiday and Sam Phillips swoop in to dash any preconceptions.
“Spark” might ultimately become my favorite song here, but that doesn’t mean it is the best one to be found. Its lyrical combination of the elements of fear, longing, human romance and Divine intervention could be an invaluable tool for other artists striving to blend the secular and sacred without sounding passé.
“Firefly” is one tune that will stun listeners who are unfamiliar with Karen Bergquist’s passionately tortured vocals. It begins with spare piano and vocals and then builds to a magnificent and raucous multi-instrument ending. The way Bergquist soars vocally at the end of “Firefly” makes one wonder how Over the Rhine manages to escape the public consciousness. This one will not leave you unmoved.
It is difficult to remain objective when hearing performances of this quality. But objectivity will be maintained, because there are two weak points to Drunkard’s Prayer. One of them is the song “Looking Forward.” So is “Looking Forward” a bad song? No. Is it out of place? Well, this reviewer thinks so. There is so much going on musically in “Looking Forward” compared to the minimalist instrumentation of the other songs that, frankly, it is too poppy in contrast.
The other detraction is in “Little Did I Know.” Many will scoff that anyone would find fault with this lovely song. Indeed it is a heartfelt, lush and jazzy song. The problem is the saxophone solo. Maybe Kenny G is to blame, but the saxophone rarely seems necessary other than in pure jazz. If the solo had been a brief interlude before ending the song, it would have been fine. But this solo lasts just as long as the vocal part. It is a fantastic song, but you’re going to be skipping to the next track once the sax solo warbles on and on. When you consider the album as a whole though, both of these quibbles seem highly insignificant.
How often does one find artists who are devastatingly direct and simultaneously subtle to a fault? Not terribly often. But that is exactly what you get with the brilliant duo of Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler.
For those as yet uninitiated to this amazing team, Drunkard’s Prayer is an excellent place to jump in. Over the Rhine’s previous albums contained much for music aficionados to gush over, but Drunkard’s Prayer maintains that lucrative yet nearly impossible-to-reach summit where art and accessibility intermingle.
It is easy to understand how Over the Rhine inspires people. Their music is full of pathos without being melodramatic. It is sentimental without being trite; it is beautiful, but not the least bit garish. It is, in short, this marriage of melancholy honesty and near-perfect musicianship that makes this album an essential listen.