Reviews

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.

Hugh Laurie – ‘Didn’t It Rain’: A Review by Josh Hurst

[Ed. note: Josh Hurst has written often and eloquently about the work of Joe Henry (he is prominently linked in the "Essential Reading" column of this blog).  From my perspective, Josh is the world's foremost authority on all things JH.  About a year ago, he ceased maintenance of his wonderful music review blog, The Hurst Review.  So it is my great honor to present his extensive review for Hugh Laurie's new record Didn't It Rain (released in the UK in May and hopefully in the US very soon).  Many thanks to Mr. Hurst for the contribution – enjoy!]
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DidntItRainHugh Laurie – Didn't It Rain

Reviewed by Josh Hurst

Didn’t it Rain—the second album of American blues and folk songs from Hugh Laurie—begins with a performance of “The St. Louis Blues”—but I will caution you in advance that it does not contain anywhere close to all of the song’s sung verses. If you want to hear the song sprawled out in all its glory, I recommend an album called Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, where Satch gives us a “St. Louis Blues” for the ages. Here, only two sung verses appear, following an extended instrumental prologue that imagines the song as gleeful Dixieland—swinging harder than anything on the first Hugh Laurie album (something that could be said about the entirety of Didn’t it Rain, just about) and rocking and rolling harder than most anything that passes for rock and roll these days.

When the first vocals do enter the song, they pick up on one of the middle verses, and it first it seems like an odd way to begin a record—not with anything that really resembles a beginning at all, but rather sounding as though we’re coming in on the middle of a conversation. Which, of course, we are: This is a song that is nearly 100 years old, and Laurie and his band are picking up where the song was left off. They are taking their verses just as rightly and freely as Louis did on W.C. Handy; others, I am quite sure, will follow, grabbing the thread from Laurie and adding their own perspectives to the song’s rich legacy.

There are other ways in which Didn’t it Rain sounds like it picks up where something was left off. It advances the central argument of Laurie’s first album, Let Them Talk, which was that Hugh Laurie is legit, and that he has as much grounds to sing these songs as Louis Armstrong, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Frank Sinatra, or Mick Jagger. But if the first record was a platform for Hugh Laurie, Didn’t it Rain assumes the matter of his blues cred more or less settled, and instead functions as a platform for, and a celebration of, the music that he so loves.

There is no other way to explain this album’s utter egolessness—the way in which Laurie surrounds himself with such a colorful parade of “guest singers,” guests who sometimes overshadow their host, who seems quite happily to cede the spotlight and disappear into the music. (And to think some would have us believe that these albums are vanity projects—whatever that even means.) There is also no other way to explain the festive mood and careening energy here; the handsome and regal Let Them Talk was and is a fine album, but hearing it in the context of this new one almost makes it seem a bit academic by comparison. That album was an act of discovery; this one, a celebration.

It’s a celebration—a real rager—that’s been going on for more than a century, and it picks up here midway through the aforementioned “St. Louis Blues,” where the first words are sung not by Hugh Laurie but by Sister Jean McClain. She can sing the hell out of any gospel or blues or whatever-else song you care to name, and she knocks a couple of tracks out of the park here. She is joined by a stunning singer from Guatemala, Gabby Moreno, who does a coy bilingual duet with Laurie on “Kiss of Fire” (the furthest we venture outside of Let Them Talk’s narrower focus on classic New Orleans blues, I think) and nearly steals the album with a smoldering and astonishing “The Weed Smoker’s Dream.” It’s my early vote for album highlight, and that’s saying something, because Taj Mahal is also here, singing a song that he loves, “Vicksburg Blues.” He does it with warm, easygoing authority—owning the song but not overpowering it, rather savoring and cherishing the very act of signing it, which in a way captures the spirit of Didn’t it Rain as well as anything else included on it.

I should also mention that Hugh Laurie is working once again with producer Joe Henry; this is Laurie’s second LP and also the second that he has made with Joe, and already it is impossible for me to imagine that there could ever be a Hugh Laurie album without Joe Henry’s name somewhere on it. I would sooner believe that Wes Anderson might make a movie without Bill Murray. They work well together, and I think it’s because they’re united behind a shared worldview—one in which it is simply impossible to have too many versions of “The St. Louis Blues” or “Careless Love,” no matter how many thousands of times they’ve both been performed, and to suggest otherwise is simply baffling.

And sure enough: When the parade of songs and singers slows a bit in the album’s more leisurely second half, Laurie lends his own voice to a take on “Careless Love,” and it’s a delight. We have heard the song many times before, but we have never heard it sung by Hugh Laurie, and that makes this version worthwhile—more than that, priceless. He doesn’t reinvent it but rather mines it for further revelation—revelation being something in no short supply, on this or any other song on the album—and brings out tenderness that’s disarming and wonderful.

Laurie also sings lead on a spritely and soulful version of “Junker’s Blues” and the intoxicated, and intoxicating, “Wild Honey,” two songs that have “The Weed Smoker’s Dream” between them—and it that makes it sound like there is an awful lot of narcotic use and mental impairment on this record, it’s because there is, and why shouldn’t there be? Didn’t it Rain is a party, after all—a jubilant testimony to the sweet seduction of love and heartache, music and drink, all manner of holy vices.

Laurie sings a song called “Evenin,’” as well, and no song on the record does more to make Let Them Talk feel like a warm-up lap. On that album, Laurie and Henry shook the dust off these old tunes, but here the music struts and swaggers, Laurie growls like he is having the time of his life, and in the middle of the song there’s an explosion of reeds that seems to take its cue from Henry’s own albums Tiny Voices and Blood from Stars—what more could we ask for, from this or any other record?

At the end of the record, Laurie does “One for My Baby,” and his version takes the song back from the saloons; when Sinatra sang it for Only the Lonely, he was tortured, but Laurie sounds comfortable, even content with the melancholy. (This, I am coming to think, is one of his great gifts as an interpretive singer; there is real warmth and joy even on songs of sadness and desolation—and I think the joy comes from the sheer act of singing.)

Then Sister Jean has a showstopper with “I Hate a Man Like You” before Laurie unveils the album’s neatest trick: Following a dozen songs that are plucked from the backpages of American song, polished up and made to sound like they could have been written yesterday, Laurie takes a comparatively newer number—Alan Price’s “Changes”—and makes it sound like a traditional Mardis Gras number. Yes, the mood is, once more, a festive one—but if the lyric is about people going through changes, I rather think Laurie is celebrating the songs that stay with us through thick and thin. This is a party decades in the making, and Didn’t it Rain only gives us further reason to rejoice and be glad.

JOE HENRY’S ‘REVERIE’ OUT NOW

Joe_Henry_Reverie2_Dukoff

Well, the long wait is over, and Reverie hits the proverbial record racks today.  I'm pretty sure this one will be universally embraced by the Joe Henry faithful, and by all means, please feel free to drop me a line or – better yet – let us read your reactions to the new record in the comments section of the blog.

You can order the album from most of your usual outlets (CD: Amazon, Anti-, Europe; Vinyl: Amazon, Anti-, MusicDirect; Digital: iTunes, Amazon).  The LP set also ships with a CD copy (though, strangely, no liner notes).

JH's website has also gotten a makeover in honor of the album's release.  Kudos to Brian Ed Sauer, the tireless site administrator (VERY nice job — I like the updated look).

As is generally the case, reviews for a new JH come in at a thoughtful pace (I'm sure owing to the fact that critics want to soak in all the details, right?).  I'll try to keep this listing of reviews and articles somewhat updated throughout the week…

Four stars from American Songwriter

American Songwriter's Hal Horowitz awards Joe Henry's Reverie four stars:

In Reverie, Joe Henry and his group have created a raw, raucous and messy masterpiece. It emerges from the heart and soul of musicians locked into each other’s vibe, playing off each other and allowed the freedom to wander within the haunting music’s beautiful, imposing, expansive yet stark and often subtle boundaries.

Andy Whitman’s review of ‘Reverie’

Writer Andy Whitman has reviewed Reverie over at his blog.  You might recall that Whitman wrote the latest press bio for Joe Henry.  

I sort of think of him and Josh Hurst as the two leading authorities on JH's music.  So you won't generally be surprised by their positive reviews of his work, but I bet there's a good chance you'll gain some deeper insight.

And don't forget also that Jeffrey Overstreet recently published a similarly insightful review over at Response magazine.

Josh Hurst’s epic review of ‘Reverie’

I suppose you may have guessed that writer Josh Hurst is an occasional correspondent of mine.  I don't recall precisely when we started exchanging musical ideas (I'm sure it was either his writing about Joe Henry or Sam Phillips that initially tipped me off to his work), but we have kept in touch over the years.  He is the tireless curator of his own music review site The Hurst Review and often contributes to Christianity Today and several other publications.

You are not likely to find a more eloquent dissector of Joe Henry's work.  Further proving this point, he has now written what will almost certainly be the definitive analysis of Reverie.

Happily, he and I will both be in LA next week for JH's record release show at Largo, giving me yet another reason to be excited for the trip.

‘Reverie’: My (initial) thoughts

(Ed. note:  I recently began pounding away at the keyboard in yet another futile attempt to somehow adequately express my reaction to a Joe Henry album.  Happily, I discovered that I had nearly completed the following essay nearly a month ago.  Based on that timetable, this was written after spending a month with Reverie.  Since that time, my opinion has solidified but certainly doesn't differ in many ways from the words I originally wrote.  With that in mind, I reserve the right to revise and embellish my opinion in the future.  But I thought I should at least enter these thoughts into the public record.)

Joe Henry gathers in the basement of Garfield House with three trusted allies. Four days will be allotted for these sessions, with no particular endgame in mind. These might be the first sessions for an album or – as it mostly turns out – the sessions for the complete album. The windows are thrown open, allowing the neighborhood to hear their work and, more crucially, allowing us, the listeners, to hear the neighborhood. The spring breeze, nearby dogs and passing cars will collectively become the unofficial fifth instrument for these sessions.

The above description would not likely accompany the press release for any other album. You might assume from the description that Reverie is little more than a collection of raw demos or song sketches, and for any other artist, this would likely be the case. However, it seems to be that Joe Henry has been gently nudging himself and his musicians in this direction for years. He has often said that, as a producer and an artist, he regards all recording techniques valid so long as they are in the service of offering an emotional connection to the listener on the other end. A very egalitarian notion, but it’s clear that Henry prefers to create records that capture the magic of the songs being discovered in the moment. This is not so much a question of speed – though Henry creates records at a comparatively breathtaking pace – but a matter of focus and immersion.

On Reverie, his third now in a trilogy of albums recorded at Garfield House (quite literally his Basement Tapes), Henry and his crew chose to operate with an abundance of economy. So yes, it is “raw” and “acoustic” and “intimate” – as the NPR journalists will tell you. But it is also rich and layered, just like most other Henry albums. The minimalism of instruments provides ample space for the musicians to explore and weave their respective magic, perhaps more so than any of his records since Scar. Never before has Henry’s own guitar work featured so prominently, and Keefus Ciancia’s piano adds depth and color throughout. As always, the rhythm section of Jay Bellerose and David Piltch creates absolute splendor where one often least expects it.

Saying that Reverie is Henry’s best album is no easier than saying it might be my favorite. Subjecting his records to such inadequate rankings serves little purpose, ignoring the fact that the artist is still batting a thousand, at least since Tiny Voices (or several albums prior). Indeed, it might be my favorite – just as on certain days it might be Civilians, or Tiny Voices, or Blood From Stars. It is almost as if Henry is merely adding chapters to a great American novel, and this latest installment illuminates previous ones merely by daring to depart in key ways from its predecessors. Reverie would be stunning merely for Henry’s dogged refusal to repeat himself. The songs on Reverie, however, appear imbued with more hard-won wisdom than is even usual for his work. Perhaps it is the unadorned presentation of the songs, chiseled to a fine point by some of the finest musicians on the planet. Or perhaps we are continuing to witness the work of a peerless artist, not operating at the top of his game but trudging uphill toward it.