Over The Rhine – ‘Meet Me At The Edge Of The World’: A Review by Josh Hurst

{Ed. note:  Once again, writer and critic Josh Hurst has generously offered up a review for the site, this time for Over The Rhine's sprawling double CD Meet Me At The Edge Of The World.  Many thanks to him for the letting us enjoy it here…}

OverTheRhineColor2-Darrin-Ballman1Long before we knew anything else about Over the Rhine’s 2013 LP—before we (or they, possibly) knew that it was a double album, before we knew that its songs would be harvested and preserved in a South Pasadena basement studio, before we even knew that it would arrive in our mailboxes in 2013—we were told that the album would be called The Farm. It is not a very evocative title, and there is a feeling of rightness to the album’s finished title Meet Me at the Edge of the World, which perfectly encapsulates the particular and peculiar mystery of this nineteen-song cycle; listeners will doubtless feel that this was meant to be the record’s title all along, that it was only briefly christened The Farm because its real name had not yet fully revealed itself.

But in the world of Over the Rhine, names—even temporary ones—always mean something: The Farm, placeholder though it may be, is a title that strikes me as quintessentially Over the Rhine. It might have almost been a fitting title for this album because the album is—yes—rooted in a very specific piece of real estate, an actual Ohio farm that’s playfully referred to by its caretakers as Nowhere (Now Here?)—but also because, with Over the Rhine, there has always been a certain workmanlike quality to the writing and recording of songs. I don’t mean that in a bad way: There are musicians who are more like architects than farmhands, raising towers forged from imagination and ego in equal measure, ambition tempered with indulgence. Over the Rhine—who are, we all know by now, husband/wife team Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist—have been given a garden of songs to tend and to harvest, and they do so with a genuinely affecting warmth and faithfulness, growing their songs from season to season, whether lovingly homemade recordings or gussied-up films for radio. They do what they do, one always feels, for the profoundly simple reason that it’s the job they’ve been given, the particular piece of earth they’ve been asked to till. Few musicians seem to share their profound sense of vocation.

So this new album, then: It was recorded with captain/producer Joe Henry and his crew, in Joe’s basement studio. He also produced The Long Surrender, which came out in 2011 and is probably still my personal favorite Over the Rhine record, though this one is just as fully-formed and is even more sweeping in its scope. He is such a simpatico producer that one imagines he might have become a full-fledged member of the band, had he been living in the right Ohio town at the right time in the 1980s. And it’s not hard to imagine what Linford and Karin see in him; like them, Joe Henry is a songwriter whose compositions always sound like he plucked them clean out of the air, even though he probably puts a great deal of hard work and elbow grease into making them sound so effortless and organic. 

Meet Me at the Edge of the World is a collection of country music, I think, more than any other Over the Rhine album to date. I don’t just say that because it is music about the country, nor because there is a heavy dose of steel guitar here, blurring the edges of these songs with mystery and grace. I say it because the songs are simple and direct, their emotions immediately apparent, the lyrics personal and unadorned. (What I mean to say is, Linford’s Leonard Cohen/Blonde on Blonde fixations never seem to surface here; there is no “Infamous Love Song.”)

The vibe is rustic, ramshackle, and dusty; previous Over the Rhine albums have generally been marked by Linford’s piano and Karin’s singing, presented with clarity and precision, but Meet Me feels like a new chapter, one in which the traditional roles of the band need not be so clearly-defined as they have been in the past. The piano plays a smaller role here than on any Over the Rhine album since—well, Eve, probably. Linford and Karin develop some rich harmonies throughout the album; he has never been more present as a singer, and indeed, the two share their first-ever recorded duet (discounting things like “Don’t Wait for Tom,” I reckon) at the beginning of Disc 2. The cumulative effect is a kind of mystic vibe that replaces the last album’s swirling, Astral Weeks feel with a more rooted and earthy barnyard hum—with, I should say, some heavy Big Pink vibes, especially in the Garth Hudson-styled organ that accents “Called Home.” (There is an actual Band song on the second half of the album, too.)

Press-photo-11-hiIt is a warmer and more assured album than their previous double, Ohio, and more sophisticated, to boot. Double albums are known for their great sprawl, but this is no White Album, nor even a Sign ‘o’ the Times; the nine songs that make up the first disc are as tight and as unified a sequence as Over the Rhine has ever released, developing lyrical motifs and sustaining a consistent mood even as the songs dart down the occasional side road—the handclap funk on “Gonna Let My Soul Catch My Body,” for example. The second disc is a continuation of the first and the same themes spill over, but it’s also a little more loose and unencumbered, its edges left wild. A couple of brief instrumentals add character and context to the album—though they’re each just a minute long, they feel essential to the fabric of this record—and the Band song (“It Don’t Make No Difference”) is re-imagined as something that’s simultaneously easygoing and heartbreaking; they make it their own, even while tipping their hat to some of this collection’s musical and spiritual touchstones. 

I used the word “heartbreaking,” and I’m not the first person to do so in the context of an Over the Rhine album. I remember seeing the band perform, in the summer when they released their jubilant and celebratory Trumpet Child album, and Karin joked at the time that the band would soon return to writing their songs of sadness and melancholy. Meet Me at the Edge of the World is not a melancholy record, though, and in fact it sounds to me like the sound of contentment. It’s an album about home, written from the perspective of two travelers who have found that very place; they may still miss it, as they take their songs out into the world, but it’s an affectionate longing for a destination they know and love, not the restlessness of two seekers. (Likewise: The song called “I’d Want You” is not a song of loneliness for an unnamed, undiscovered lover, it doesn’t seem to me, but one of longing and desire for a particular beloved.)

The record’s contentedness does not mean it is frivolous, or even that it is marked by a prevailing sense of good cheer; there is a warmth of love, acceptance, and familiarity here that illuminates that record’s darkest corners, and bolsters the listener’s spirits as he allows these mysteries to wash over him. And indeed, the album’s mantra to “leave the edges wild”—which appears in many of its songs, on both discs—bids us to avoid compartmentalizing the record too neatly. Contented though Linford and Karin sound to me, then, it is worth noting that the album makes multiple mentions to sacrifices made; this sense of home is hard-won and long fought for, it seems. I also hear several mentions of mortality here; the title of the song “Called Home” takes on two meanings, and a song on the second disc considers the question that all long-time lovers face sooner or later, if they’re honest with themselves—“who’s gonna bury who?” 

The performances and the production ensure that there are small, sensual pleasures to be found throughout the album—that Garth Hudson organ on “Called Home,” the reliable thump of Jay Bellerose’s drums, the seductive slow burn of “I’d Want You,” and on down the line. “Highland County” is an amiable country shuffle; “Wait,” which recaptures the incredible holy-moment feel of the last album’s “Rave On,” pays off the album’s patient and luxurious pacing with something so aching, you can feel it on your skin. The duet on “All Over Ohio” might just make it the essential Over the Rhine song, Linford’s plainspoken drawl and Karin’s soulful gale perfectly encapsulating the strange and wondrous alchemy that has for so long been the group’s calling card.

OvertheRhineColor-byDarrinBallmanOn and on goes the list: “Earthbound Love Song,” a backporch folk song that references Johnny and June (the patron saints of musical couples, I dare say), wonders if joy and redemption are as real on Earth as they are in the sweet hereafter, a gospel flourish that grounds the album’s themes of contented domesticity. “Cuyahoga” is one of the minute-long instrumentals, but it feels like it could go on forever, steadily flowing like the river that gives it its name; “The Birds of Ohio,” meanwhile, is a playful piano showcase. (I mention them both to emphasize that they are not “interludes” or throwaways, despite their brevity.) And in the band’s grand tradition of perfect album closers, which draw together all the thematic strands that have preceded, there is “Favorite Time of Light.” The last album ended with a spiritual of human brokenness, “All My Favorite People,” and this one is a kind of a spiritual as well, I think—only this time, it’s a quietly stirring witness to the joys that arise from little things, small moments of grace, shared together.

I said before that, in the world of Over the Rhine, names are important. Meet Me at the Edge of the World—the album formerly known as The Farm—could have very easily been titled Over the Rhine, and none of us would have had to ask why. (It is a masterwork in the truest sense, that is.) This feels like the most personal set of songs the band has ever recorded, the one that’s the most them—and yes, I’ve heard Drunkard’s Prayer. Its affection for a specific piece of land—called Nowhere; called Home—is something that only Linford and Karin could have conjured, yet it is also universal in its resonance. This band—restless in leaving life’s edges wild, but sounding assured of the work that’s theirs to do—bids the listener to sit, be still, to revel in small joys, to find meaning in vocation and in homes both heavenward and earthbound. By which I mean only to say that, like every other record released by Over the Rhine, this one feels like a unique an invaluable gift.

One comment

  1. I think people are afraid to be honest about Over the Rhine sometimes. Saying this as a huge fan, this album is a complete and almost total borefest. My top 3 by them are Drunkard’s Prayer, The Long Surrender, and The Trumpet Child (Snow Angels, too – but that’s a Christmas album). I love, love, love their work. This album is boring. Plain and simple. I have listened to in many settings – in the car, at work, at home, with headphones, outdoors, etc. I’ve spun it in its entirety nearly 20 times now. Other than “I’d Want You,” I have no desire to come back to it again. Just plain zzzzzz. Sorry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s