Monday, February 7, 2011

Over The Rhine - The Long Surrender (Album Review)

Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler have been performing together as Over The Rhine for over 20 years now and you don’t get to stick around that long unless you’re continually offering up something really good. Their latest release, The Long Surrender, resoundingly proves that they’ve still got plenty to say and plenty to play. Filled with weighty lyrics, fascinating melodies, captivating vocals and virtuoso musicianship, The Long Surrender is as much a refreshing breath for the soul as it is for the ears. Linford has always handled the lion’s share in constructing the musical canvas for Over The Rhine and he consistently manages to strike a superb balance between ability and feel. When he does play it’s impressively beautiful, but the way he creates space and atmosphere within the music is equally arresting. His solid melodic touch allows Karin the freedom to really get in to each line and stretch her vocal wings to electrifying results. Her subtle, smoky voice gracefully croons and climbs through each passage, making each intricate melody sound fluid and effortless. Throughout the years, Over The Rhine has eluded conventional genre labels, landing somewhere between folk, Americana, jazz, alt-country and roots rock. The Long Surrender has many gorgeous elements of each of those stylings, plus enough twists and surprises, to earn the “indefinable” label honestly.

One of the things I’ve always admired about Over The Rhine is their unique understanding and utilization of instrument combinations. If a song starts out with a jazzy piano segment, there’s no guarantee that the other instruments will just “fall in line” with the same feel. Each sound and tone is individual in nature, but unified in theme. Tom Waits is a master at this type of thing and more than a few of the songs on The Long Surrender have a distinctively “Waitsian” vibe to them. Exchange his whiskey-soaked rasp for Karin’s velvet serenade and you’ll end up with “The Laugh of Recognition,” “Soon,” “Infamous Love Song” and “The King Knows How.” Thanks to some geniusly soulful piano playing, they can also conjure up the low-lit, jazz club vibe like few else. This is shown to great effect on songs like “The Sharpest Blade,” “Rave On” and “There’s A Bluebird In My Heart.” They also have no problem tapping deeply into Americana and alt-country veins with “Only God Can Save Us Now,” “Days Like This,” and “Undamned,” which features Lucinda Williams on vocals. Over The Rhine also turns in a cleverly titled instrumental, “Unspoken,” and one of their far too few duets, the achingly beautiful, “Oh Yeah By The Way.” That one would probably be my favorite off of The Long Surrender if it weren’t for “All My Favorite People.” This thoughtful piano ballad expertly builds upon itself, adding flavorful instrumentation with each passing verse as it declares, “all my favorite people are broken” as an invitation and point of connection. The album may be titled The Long Surrender, but Over The Rhine has once again let everyone know they’re not quite ready to go gentle into that good night any time soon.

The Long Surrender will be released on February 8th through Over The Rhine's own Great Speckled Dog label and it can be ordered HERE.

"All My Favorite People" - Over The Rhine (The Long Surrender)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Day The Music Died

Today marks the anniversary of one of the saddest days in music history. On February 3rd, 1959 the plane carrying Buddy Holly, "The Big Bopper" J.P. Richardson and Ritchie Valens crashed in a cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa, taking their lives and the life of Roger Peterson, the pilot. The three musicians were travelling and performing on "The Winter Dance Party" tour and frustrations with faulty buses, freezing cold weather and exhaustion caused Buddy Holly to charter a plane to get to the next tour stop more quickly. Originally the small plane was only supposed to carry Buddy Holly and his two bandmates, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. In a strange twist of events, Ritchie Valens won the seat from Allsup over a coin flip and Jennings gave his seat to Richardson, who was suffering from the flu. The story is told that when Holly found out Jennings had given up his seat he jokingly told him, "I hope your old bus freezes up." To which Jennings joked back, "well I hope you're old plane crashes." The horrible weather made air travel conditions unfavorable and the inexperienced pilot wasn't familiar with having to fly using only the instrument panel. The accident report estimated that the plane was going over 170 miles per hour when it hit the ground and all four occupants died on impact. Not only did all three musical heavyweights leave behind a plethora of great music, but Valens was only 17 years old, Holly left behind a brand new pregnant wife he'd married just a few months prior and Richardson left behind a wife and young daughter.

In 1971, singer/songwriter Don McLean beautifully eulogized the three in his poetic song "American Pie" from the album of the same name. The lyrics include references to the three musicians, as well as many other songs and bands, and they have been dissected and analyzed many times over. However, McLean has famously never offered his own interpretation of the lyrics, letting the listener form their own opinion and leaving the mysteries intact.

"American Pie" - Don McLean (American Pie)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

R.I.P. - The White Stripes

Oh man... sad, sad day for White Stripes fan. All good things must come to an end and blah, blah, blah but what a bummer. Although Jack still has his hands in a lot of other musical projects, there was always something super special about anything having to do with The White Stripes. Everyone would like the chance to eulogize themselves though right? I won't even try to attempt any words above Jack and Meg's...

The White Stripes would like to announce that today, February 2nd, 2011, their band has officially ended and will make no further new recordings or perform live.

The reason is not due to artistic differences or lack of wanting to continue, nor any health issues as both Meg and Jack are feeling fine and in good health.

It is for a myriad of reasons, but mostly to preserve What is beautiful and special about the band and have it stay that way.

Meg and Jack want to thank every one of their fans and admirers for the incredible support they have given throughout the 13 plus years of the White Stripes’ intense and incredible career.

Third Man Records will continue to put out unreleased live and studio recordings from The White Stripes in their Vault Subscription record club, as well as through regular channels.

Both Meg and Jack hope this decision isn’t met with sorrow by their fans but that it is seen as a positive move done out of respect for the art and music that the band has created. It is also done with the utmost respect to those fans who’ve shared in those creations, with their feelings considered greatly.

With that in mind the band have this to say:
“The White Stripes do not belong to Meg and Jack anymore. The White Stripes belong to you now and you can do with it whatever you want. The beauty of art and music is that it can last forever if people want it to. Thank you for sharing this experience. Your involvement will never be lost on us and we are truly grateful.”

Meg and Jack White
The White Stripes

"I'm Bound To Pack It Up" - The White Stripes (De Stijl)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow (Album Review)

I’ve gushed about The Civil Wars a few times on here and I’m really excited to finally be able to review their enchanting debut album, Barton Hollow. Rarely does a musical group absolutely nail who they are and what they offer on the first album as well as The Civil Wars have done. But the blending that takes place between Joy Williams and John Paul White is a rare thing indeed. Joy’s sunny California pop sensibilities and John Paul’s rich, murky Alabama alt-country, while both nice enough on their own, combine to create something altogether new, extraordinary and mysterious. As great as the individual parts are, the sum ends up on a completely different level. When the two sing together, what you hear goes beyond talent and chemistry to produce a spontaneous reaction that I think surprises and charms them as much as it does us. I’ve sat with this album since November and it was the only non-Christmas album I listened to during the holidays. I couldn’t get away from it. Like a layered story that you come back to more than once to uncover new subtleties, Barton Hollow is filled with songs, melodies, characters, instrumentation and moments that unwrap themselves more and more with each repetition. The Civil Wars are immediately accessible enough to snag even the most casual of listeners, but they’re truly enjoyed and experienced best with multiple spins of the album.

The beauty of The Civil Wars is what they do with so few ingredients. Their two voice, one or two instrument approach gives their songs the illusion of a fragile veneer cloaking their rock solid songwriting. Masterstroke producer Charlie Peacock did an incredible job of preserving this tenderness and using sparse instrumentation to undergird their performances. Throughout all of Barton Hollow, instruments and atmospheres float in and out, enhancing each moment but never staying for the entirety of the song. Take opener “20 Years” for example. John Paul’s acoustic provides the foundation of the song as subtle percussion, mandolin, violin and keys dance around it. The same acoustic-led unobtrusive orchestration feel is present in “To Whom It May Concern,” “Falling,” “The Girl With The Red Balloon” and “My Father’s Father.” Joy has an impressive melodic touch on the piano as well and her skills show up nicely in “C’est la Mort,” “Poison & Wine” and the haunting instrumental “The Violet Hour.” By the way, I love when an instrumentalist does something clever with the music and I absolutely love the way the chiming piano chords that open and close “The Violet Hour” are made to sound like an old grandfather clock. There are a few songs on the album that get a fuller instrumental bed to work with as well. “Forget Me Not” has a moving pedal steel, violin and stand up bass. “Birds Of A Feather” has an electric guitar, bass and minimal drum kit. “I’ve Got This Friend” has a tasty banjo, mandolin, bass, pedal steel and occasional drums. However, some of the best use of instrumentation is found on the title track. “Barton Hollow” feels like there’s a marching band pulsing behind Joy and John Paul even though it’s just a dobro, a kick drum, bass, some percussion and a violin. It’s the power that they create singing together that transforms the song, and really the entire album, into something else entirely. The phrase, “it’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there,” doesn’t apply to the idyllic Barton Hollow and this musical postcard from The Civil Wars is a welcoming and inviting “wish you were here.”

"Forget Me Not" - The Civil Wars (Barton Hollow)