Simple Things
Little Records From Over the Rhine and Glen Phillips

I hate Pennsylvania.

Apologies to any faithful readers who happen to live in the Keystone State, but I hate it. I have a good reason, though – Pennsylvania hated me first.

This enmity started about seven years ago, when my friend Ray and I were stranded for almost a week in Clearfield, a tiny town in the middle of central nowhere, PA. A truck we were following on the highway dropped its spare tire from underneath, landing it right in the path of my newly purchased (and dangerously low to the ground) Saturn sport coupe. With a ditch to the left of me and traffic to the right, I saw little choice but to go over the obstacle and hope no serious damage would be done. A couple of inches either way and I could have flipped the car.

So we went over the tire, and immediately the car started acting up. We pulled over, called Triple A, and they sent a down-home guy with strange facial hair named Shawn. And Shawn assured us that our problem was a cracked oil pan, and that we’d be on the road in a few hours. We were breathing sighs of relief, when Shawn made one last trip around the car, stopped short, stared at the engine – and if I could mark one part of this story “And Here My Troubles Began,” it would be this one – and exclaimed, “Holy shit!”

And then he said it again.

This did not sound like a happy diagnosis. Apparently, the tire had cracked my engine block, rendering it scrap. I needed a new one, stat. Luckily, Shawn had just that week discovered “this thing called internet,” and he ordered an engine post haste. Here’s the thing, though – Shawn happily gave us a ride to a nearby hotel, where the receptionist knew his name, and all but said, “Got another one, huh?” I got the definite sense that the two of them had done this before, and the hotel pretty much had a room reserved for whatever strays Shawn picked up off the road.

And soon the entire conspiracy became clear. It was the state, you see, the whole state of Pennsylvania. They trap people and force them to spend money at local businesses – trucks in Pennsylvania drop tires regularly so that folks like Shawn and the hotel owners can rake in some out-of-state bucks. I was there for four days – Ray abandoned me after two, citing unimportant things like “work” and “family” and “my own life” he had to get back to. (I often asked him what he would have done in my place in that situation, and without fail, his response was always, “My Jeep would have cleared the tire.” Har dee har.)

I’ll give Shawn this much, he did great work. I was a bit apprehensive when I first saw the backwoods automobile graveyard he called his shop, and spotted my car in 30 pieces in his garage, but his repair job was top notch. I had thousands of further problems with that little car, some of which bordered on science fiction, but none of them had anything to do with the engine, or with Shawn’s work.

Anyway, since then, I have been wary of Pennsylvania, and every time I have made a cross-country trip, either across the northeast or up from the southern coast, I have designed the route to avoid as much of the offending state as I can. Sadly, it’s a pretty big state, and avoiding it entirely often involves air travel, so I’ve had to grit my teeth and get through it several times. The first time I managed an in-and-out without incident, I waited until I was safely over the New York border, then I flipped off Pennsylvania, shouting exultantly, “You didn’t get me this time, fuckers!” It was a good moment.

So I told you that story to tell you this one.

I’m sick as that sex-change episode of South Park right now, coughing and wheezing and breathing slowly, lest my chest burst with pain. Let me tell you how I got this way.

I drove out east for Easter, taking I-90 for the full 16.5 hours, and I stayed a week and a half. Had a great time – saw some folks I hadn’t seen in a while, got Easter candy from three different sources (despite being 30), and got the latest installment of the book my uncle’s writing about his time in World War II. I saw Sin City, and it was pretty much perfect. All in all, good vacation. I even spent an extra day to avoid the bad weather predicted for the weekend, deciding to make the trek back on Sunday, April 3. Not a problem.

I got through Massachusetts and half of New York okay, and then I hit some freak snowstorm, one the Weather Channel apparently missed. I almost died in New York when the car skidded out and pulled a complete 360 in the middle of I-90. I swear I was facing the oncoming traffic for a good three seconds, unable to get out of the way. Luckily, the car righted itself and landed off the road, and after I was done being terrified, I told myself that I was fortunate that hadn’t happened in Pennsylvania. I’d be dead for sure.

I forged onward at 30 miles per hour, passing up several opportunities to get off the road and get a hotel or something, and then it started to clear up. The clouds parted, the snow started letting up, and I figured I’d be okay. I must have forgotten that, geographically speaking, I was just about to enter the third ring of Hell. Almost three minutes after I crossed over into Pennsylvania, traffic ground to a halt. Miles of it, not moving at all.

Well, I waited an hour or so, then shut the car down to conserve the quarter-tank of gas I had left. Venturing from the warm confines of my Focus into the snowy forest of immobile autos, I found some truck drivers who knew what was going on. Pennsylvania had closed I-90. Yep, the whole road, and just in that one state. What they planned to do with the people already stuck on I-90, no one knew. I got back in my car and froze some more.

Five hours. That’s how long we were sitting there, shivering and waiting for rescue. Five hours. When the Keystone Cops finally arrived, they muscled their way up through miles of unmovable traffic, then shepherded us to the next exit. Something we could have done, of course, by ourselves, five hours before. Tired and nearly sick as I was, there was no way I was going to stay in Pennsylvania overnight – who knew what could happen? My car would undoubtedly have been stolen, stripped and sold, and I would have had to pay some PA taxi driver $500 to get me to the airport. That’s how they make their money in PA – by trapping unsuspecting motorists.

No, I wasn’t about to do that, so I found Route 20 and drove west until I saw the greatest thing I’d ever witnessed – the “Welcome to Ohio” sign. Only then did I pull off the road and find a hotel. I didn’t spend any money in Pennsylvania, but they got me anyway. Those five frigid hours did a number on me – I have a kickass immune system, and I’m hardly ever sick, but right now I feel like I can’t breathe, and any rapid movement makes my lungs hurt. So congratulations, Pennsylvania, you screwed me again.

Oh, how I hate you.

* * * * *

At least the drive gave me plenty of opportunity to listen to new music. Here are my thoughts on two of the first really good records of 2005:

In retrospect, Glen Phillips always kind of belonged on Lost Highway Records. There’s always been a bit of twang to his folk and rock style, and his band Toad the Wet Sprocket was always a much more serious and introspective group than its name would imply. I’m not sure why it’s taken Phillips this long to hook up with Lost Highway, the home of Ryan Adams and Elvis Costello’s The Delivery Man, but now that he has, it’s an obvious pairing. He fits right in.

Phillips’ solo debut, 2001’s Abulum, emphasized the folksiness and lyrical poetry in his sound. It made my Top 10 List that year on the strength of its lyrics, one of the best sets of words I’d heard in ages, so much so that the sweet acoustic pop songcraft was just icing. His sophomore record, Winter Pays for Summer, isn’t quite as immediately striking lyrically, but Phillips makes up for that with his strongest group of songs since Toad’s Dulcinea. Some of this record is deceptively simple, but given a few listens, all of it sounds just about right.

The opening two tracks sound like Toad reborn. “Duck and Cover” is a wonderful number, full of the family-oriented sentiments that modern country strives for, yet always bungles. There’s nothing saccharine about Phillips’ words here – “One way or another, we all need each other, nothing’s gonna turn out the way you thought it would, friends and lovers don’t you duck and cover, ‘cause everything turns out the way it should.” It’s realistically optimistic, if such a thing is possible, and the music is somehow the same. It’s just a great little song.

“Thankful,” the first single, is even better, with its driving rhythm and unpredictable shifts. It’s the one moment on Winter Pays for Summer that might be considered power pop, but Phillips grounds it with his sweet voice and words. “Thankful,” like many songs here, features former Jellyfish singer Andy Sturmer on backing vocals, and while you can’t quite pick him out, I’d like to think that his influence has punched up these tunes.

It’s not all happiness and light, of course. Phillips brings the emotional ache on “Released,” a perhaps metaphorical tale of incarceration on which he sings, “My cup’s one-sixteenth full, I’m getting there but the getting’s slow.” He takes the seemingly simple rhythms and chords of “Cleareyed” and spins a joyous shout of it, and makes the similarly uncomplicated “Simple” seem revelatory. The album stumbles only once, with the too-easy “True.” Lyrically, it explores honesty and fidelity, the two sides of the title word, but musically it feels like a b-side.

But that’s the only dead spot. As late as track 10 (“Finally Fading”), Phillips is still pulling out the melodic winners, and no matter how close he seems to steer towards AOR-land, he never crosses that city’s limits. The closing track is an ode to contentment called “Don’t Need Anything,” and as trite as it may read on paper – “I’ve a roof overhead, the stars if I choose, but I’ve got no itch to fly, got no need to move” – he sells it on disc, singing over a sparse piano bed.

Winter Pays for Summer is perhaps Phillips’ most honest record, and he sounds genuinely happy and at peace. That the album is still moving and engaging despite its lack of bite is a testament to his skill. Phillips, in fact, describes his own album best with a few of his song titles: it’s mostly clear-eyed, simple and thankful. And it’s a treat to listen to.

* * * * *

The great Over the Rhine has made a similarly simple record with their new Drunkard’s Prayer, but under vastly different circumstances.

Over the Rhine is a married couple, pianist Linford Detweiler and singer Karin Bergquist, and in 2003 they made a massive, two-disc opus-a-rama called Ohio. It was the culmination of a trip they’d been on for a while, taking their tiny little sound and exploding it with musicians and layers of production. Sure, it was still smaller than most anything else you’d find at the record store, but for Karin and Linford, Ohio was an untamed, unwieldy beast that they somehow tamed and wielded. It was the best album they had yet made.

The tour, on the other hand, nearly drove them apart. Ohio was such a lumbering undertaking that they were feeling the strain on their marriage, so rather than keep pushing forward, they cancelled the tour and went home to reconnect. They made a deal – they would open one bottle of wine a night and talk until it was empty. And they would make a little record in their living room, one made up of simple songs and genuine feeling, scrubbed clean.

It’s a wonderful story, and you know what? It’s a wonderful record, too. Drunkard’s Prayer is almost entirely acoustic guitar, piano, upright bass and Bergquist’s striking voice. There are drums on only three of these 11 tracks, and even those are subtle. This album is the sound of Karin and Linford opening the doors to their home and inviting you in. It’s so warm and intimate that I don’t even feel odd about using their first names.

This is an album about reconnecting, about mending relationships, and it bursts with real longing and pain. It opens with its simplest declaration, “I Want You to Be My Love.” The title phrase makes up 80 percent of the lyrics, and it’s this commitment right from the beginning that provides this record’s center. You will not hear a more lovely song this year than “Born,” a six-minute honeydrip that seems to glide by like something half its length. “I was born to love, I’m gonna learn to love without fear,” Karin sings, and to say that you can feel her conviction here is to understate by miles.

Drunkard’s Prayer never “takes off,” in the traditional sense, although it seems like it might when “Spark” kicks in. The duo brings it back down with “Hush Now,” a lovely piano-vocal number, and then takes it up one last time with “Lookin’ Forward,” the obvious single. From there, though, they close the album with four sweet ballads, perhaps the finest sustained run in their catalog. “Little Did I Know” expands its jazzy tone with a lengthy saxophone solo (by Brent Gallaher), while “Who Will Guard the Door” sets its tale of love and loss over an acoustic guitar web reminiscent of Ohio’s “Suitcase.”

“Firefly” levitates on Detweiler’s piano and David Henry’s cello, letting Bergquist dig deep into the minor key melody. This would be her finest moment on Drunkard’s Prayer, if not for the closing track, a cover of Rogers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” Over just piano and upright bass, Karin brings gorgeous depth to the familiar tune – she’s obviously very good, but until I heard this rendition, I had no idea of just how good she is. She weaves this song’s take on odd yet perfect relationships into the very fabric of the album, and it’s a wonder to behold.

According to the liner notes, the duo picked Drunkard’s Prayer as their album title because it sounds like the name of a race horse, “a long shot, a horse with little chance of winning, but one you’ve got all your money on.” If there’s a better metaphor for any long-term relationship, I’ve yet to hear it. Drunkard’s Prayer is not the way any label rep would have advised Over the Rhine to follow up Ohio, but as you can hear in every note, every line, every deep pocket of this record, it’s exactly the one they needed to make. This album may have saved their marriage, and there’s an honest and palpable beauty to it that can only come from such depth of meaning and feeling. It is, once again, the best album they’ve done.

* * * * *

Quick notes: The new Weezer song is so bad that I don’t know whether to laugh or find Rivers Cuomo and shoot him. It makes me very sad. The new Nine Inch Nails is similarly execrable. In brighter news, Aimee Mann has released her whole new album, three songs at a time, on her website, and it’s very, very good. And if I see another four-to-five-star review of the new Eels record, the 33-song Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, I may go out of my mind waiting for April 26. The songs released on the band’s web site are excellent.

The current front runner in my search for my favorite album title this year is the Lost Dogs. You may remember that they made an album of re-recordings last year called Mutt. Well, they’re currently recording the second installment in that series, and the title they’ve chosen is perfect: Jeff. I bet you just laughed out loud reading that right now. That’s the one to beat, though no one else has quite stepped up to the plate yet. The closest second place contender is The Wonder Stuff, with Escape from Rubbish Island. But it’s early yet.

Next week, I hopefully will stop coughing. I’ll also be reviewing two discs from Tooth and Nail Records – Starflyer 59’s Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice and Mae’s The Everglow.

See you in line Tuesday morning.