The Long Surrender, the new studio album from the southern Ohio-based husband-and-wife team of multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Linford Detweiler and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Karin Bergquist, otherwise known as OVER THE RHINE, is something rare and wondrous — an intimate epic. Shot through with the joys and sorrows of modern-day existence and the unchanging fundaments of the human condition, the album has the feel of a living thing, senses alert, feet planted firmly on terra firma.
The fan-funded record, to be released on OtR’s own Great Speckled Dog label (named after the couple’s Great Dane, Elroy), will see the light of day 20 years after their 1991 debut. It’s the bountiful result of a collaboration between the couple and producer Joe Henry, whose songs and recordings they’ve long admired. “Joe has been quietly making records (well, not that quietly; he has won at least two Grammys) that don’t sound like other records being made in 2010,” Linford points out. “They are a little bit dark and cinematic and funky and unpredictable. It seems like he loves to help performers who have already covered a lot of miles — people like Mavis Staples, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke, Loudon Wainwright III, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Mose Allison — rediscover the soul of what they do in new light.”
Going in, the expectations of these three fiercely intelligent, soulful artists were as wide-open as the horizon stretching out from the Southern California desert, each of them eager to discover where their shared journey would take them. “With The Long Surrender, our vision was ‘to make a record that we couldn’t imagine in advance.’” says Linford. “We wanted to be surprised. We wanted to remain open, let the record unfold in real time. Fortunately, Joe loves to be surprised as well.”
Driving them was the wealth of material they’d come up with — songs containing little mysteries of their own to be unlocked through the process of bringing them to life. As Karin recalls, “Joe referenced Astral Weeks early on and pointed out that the songs on that record were quite traditional in nature in terms of their form, but ‘the seams had been blown out…’ That particular observation lodged in our imaginations like a call to arms. Yes. We were going to California to blow the seams out of our songs.”
In his perceptive liner notes, as much free verse as prose, Henry writes: “Before their arrival on my turf, my communication with them had been a fast flurry of emails, occasional phone conferences, and the bundles of song that I’d find sporadically filling my morning’s inbox. I had imagined an elaborate life for the two of them, stitched together from a few threadbare facts and scrap references, and from the séance-like voices that their demos used to address me. I pictured Karin and Linford in the attic of their Civil War-era house in the rural outskirts of Cincinnati, huddled beneath a swinging bare bulb, shooing away pigeons, and confiding songs-in-progress into an old German-made reel-to-reel recorder….
“The long surrender” is a phrase that turns up in a poem by B.H. Fairchild called “Rave On,” which became the jumping off point for Karin’s smoldering song of the same title. “It wasn’t so much an adaptation of the poem, more of a flirtation,” Linford explains. The poem references Buddy Holly’s iconic “Rave On,” and so does her lyric: “Blastin’ Buddy on the radio/The Baptist wheat fields rolling low/Rock on/Rave on.” Karin also found a Bukowski poem called “Bluebird,” which in turn led to “There’s a Bluebird in My Heart.” Linford concludes, “She’s feeling some common ground between what she wants her songs to do and what a good poem can still do to her.”
And what songs these are, teasing at first, but revealing more and more with each listening, seemingly without end. Karin provides the back story for the album-opening, zeitgeist-capturing “The Laugh of Recognition”: “We’ve had friends who lost everything (their entire life’s work and savings) in the latest crash — friends who worked so hard and thought they had built something that would last. So this became a song that speaks to making a new start, retaining dignity in the face of uncertainty.”
Set in a nursing home, where Karin has spent countless hours since her mom suffered a devastating stroke nine years ago, the humorous and heart-wrenching “Only God Can Save Us Now” celebrates the tenacity of the human spirit. “We came to describe the nursing home as ‘a head-on collision between comedy and tragedy,’” says Karin. “Obviously, we’ve gotten to know many of the residents there and have found it impossible to ignore them and their stories. And we have our favorites. For example, once I leaned in to ask one of the residents, a little bird-like woman named Geneva, ‘How are you today, Geneva?’ She replied, ‘Only God can save us now…’”
“The King Knows How” moves the record out onto the dance floor, fusing body and soul. “I had a feeling about this song and really pushed for it,” says Karin, “and the singers that Joe brought in were like a tornado of joy that whirled it into fruition.”
Even more than their earlier records, The Long Surrender seamlessly interweaves the disparate idiosyncratic strains that form the many-colored crazy quilt of American music. “We’re really only reflecting what we’ve already heard,” Linford explains, “a mix of all the music we grew up with and were drawn to: old gospel hymns, the country and western music on WWVA, the rock and roll records the kids at school passed around, the symphonic music that my father brought home, the jazz musicians we discovered in college, the Great American Songbook performers that Karin’s mother loved, and of course the various singer-songwriters that eventually knocked the roof off our world. But when this music is reflected back to the listener through the filter of our own particular lives, hopefully it becomes a much different experience (maybe even somewhat unique) for those with ears to hear.”
As Joe puts it, “We settled for…luminance over order, for terse beauty and a smeared-lipstick brand of soul; for spot-welding over handicraft; for leaving ‘the edges wild,’ as Linford’s father had once so richly advised him, and for never comparing this particular journey to any other. I hear this batch of songs now the way the last one of them, All of My Favorite People, seems to see the world: as naked in its finery, fiercely tender, and thorny with sweet promise; as heroically humbled, and broken to the point of availing true light to anyone who cares to look inside…. I am not in the business of dispelling mysteries, only abiding with them when invited. Mystery is life’s strange and glorious weather, so to speak. And this time, Over the Rhine brought it with them.”
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