On Marriages, Real and Otherwise
With the Civil Wars and Over the Rhine

I’ve been a Doctor Who fan since I was six years old. I’m 39 now, but I’ll tell you, the thrill of regeneration has never faded.

For those of you who are not fans (and, happily, that number keeps on shrinking), the central premise of Doctor Who is one of rebirth. The concept of regeneration is a novel one – when the Doctor is mortally injured, his body completely renews itself, changing its entire appearance. That means that not only do creative teams keep cycling in and out of the show, as you’d expect for a 50-year-old institution, but the lead actor does as well. Couple that with a long-standing tradition of temporary traveling companions, and you have a show that can look and feel completely different in the space of two or three years.

As you can imagine, this is both exciting and scary. Doctor Who fans live in a perpetual state of suspense, wondering how a new Doctor will change the show. When Matt Smith arrived in the spring of 2010, all fresh-faced and quirky, he was a massive question mark. Very few had heard of him, and no one knew quite what he was going to do with the role. (His age was also a concern – at the time he was cast, he was 26, the youngest actor ever to play the part.) Four years on, I’m happy to say that Smith turned in one of my favorite portrayals, and certainly my favorite since the years of Tom Baker and Peter Davison.

Now Smith is moving on, and the Doctor will regenerate again. Eleven actors have played the role on television, and you would think by now the roller-coaster feeling when a new Doctor is announced would fade over time. You’d be wrong. The identity of the 12th Doctor was revealed on a live television special last week, and it was all I could think about for days. Here’s the guy who will be setting the tone for a show that has grown with me since my earliest memories. Will this be the one I end up hating? Or will this be my new favorite Doctor, taking the show to new heights?

We still don’t know that, but I feel confident the next few years are in very safe hands indeed. Scottish actor Peter Capaldi will step into the Tardis this Christmas, and man, that’s inspired casting. Capaldi is an intense actor, best known for his sweary-shouty role as Malcolm Tucker on The Thick of It (and in its spinoff movie, In the Loop). Like Colin Baker before him, he’s appeared on Doctor Who before, in “The Fires of Pompeii” (along with Karen “Amy Pond” Gillan). More notably, though, in terms of his deep dark range, Capaldi played bureaucrat John Frobisher in the Torchwood story Children of Earth. And he was remarkable.

I expect Capaldi will bring a darkness and a gravitas to the role, and I’m looking forward to that. Smith has been wonderful, but he often played the 1000-year-old Time Lord as an excitable kid, and I expect those days are over. I also would not be surprised to see an end to quippy Tardis romance, which would be fine with me. I adore River Song, and the Doctor’s relationship with her, but I’ll be glad to see a more dangerous and less trustworthy Doctor, one who keeps his companions at arm’s length. I have no idea if this is how Capaldi will play the part – I’m just guessing, based on his track record.

And God bless America, because once again the Doctor’s age is an issue. Capaldi is 55, making him the second-oldest actor to step into the part. (William Hartnell was also 55, but was older by three months.) After three increasingly younger actors, we’ve gone older again, and I think it’s about time. But Capaldi’s age has caused a rift among younger viewers (mainly those who started with Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant), and I hope the BBC is prepared to lose some of its stateside audience. Casting Capaldi was a terrific move for the long-term health of the show, but there are bound to be some short-term pains along the way.

(I’ve even heard some suggest that the pace of the show will need to slow down, since the “old guy” won’t be able to keep up with the action. I mean, wow. First, 55 is still pretty young, and second, Capaldi is in tip-top shape. It’s so not a concern. I hope they start his first episode with an outrageous amount of running, just to show people that he can handle it just fine.)

By Christmas, we should know what Capaldi will look like as the Doctor, and next year, we’ll get to see how he plays the part. This bit never gets less exciting – saying goodbye to a familiar face and welcoming a new one, and with it, a renewal of this crazy, silly, wonderful little show I love. As the song from Delta and the Bannermen says, here’s to the future.

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Life is just different for a duo act.

While any band is like a family, duo acts are like a marriage. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel may have gone on to marry other people, but from 1957 to 1970, they were married to each other, and that relationship still hangs over them. Like any marriage, it had its good periods and bad ones, and like many of them, it ended in divorce. Occasionally they’ll still see each other at parties, and they’ll rekindle what they had, but once the flame is doused, it’s gone, gone, gone.

It’s even worse for duo acts made up of one man and one woman. I can’t imagine how sick Jack and Meg White were of telling people they were not actually married. People will assume intimacy no matter what the artists themselves say. Being in a band is just that intense of a relationship to begin with. So even though Joy Williams and John Paul White are both married to other people, the Civil Wars feels like a marriage. And now that the two have acrimoniously split, and reportedly are not speaking, it certainly feels like a divorce.

The whole thing even plays like a marriage. The two songwriters met at a writing camp in Nashville in 2008, and discovered the chemistry between them. They began performing together, then writing together, finally consummating things with their debut full-length Barton Hollow in 2011. That album was a fine, folksy platter, if a bit slight, and the voices of Williams and White blended beautifully. Things seemed to be going well.

And then, in November of last year, they weren’t. The Civil Wars canceled a run of tour dates and entered an indefinite hiatus, citing “irreconcilable differences of ambition.” They reconvened long enough to record a second album, but then evidently signed the papers and went their separate ways. So now we have this strange sophomore effort, a self-titled document of a duo about to break apart. The cover is a stark black-and-white photo of ominous clouds rolling in. It’s a divorce album, no doubt about it, and it’s impossible to think of it any other way.

Williams and White seem to know this. The songs about leaving and regret are all up front, starting with the melancholy first single, “The One That Got Away.” The amps crank up more than they ever have here, as Williams laments, “I wish I’d never seen your face, I wish you were the one that got away.” If you’re parsing the lyrics for references to the breakup, you can’t get more on-the-nose than that. White sticks with the electric guitar for the bluesy “I Had Me a Girl,” a tale of two people slipping through each other’s hands “like cigarette smoke.”

And “Same Old Same Old” may be the most self-referential song here. “Do I love you, oh I do, and I’m going to till I’m gone, but if you think that I can stay in this same old same old, well, I don’t.” If you’re a fan of this band, the song is heartbreaking, a knife slipped in slowly. The references keep on coming, if you’re looking for them: “Dust to Dust” finds the pair asking each other to take down the walls, and “Eavesdrop” finds Williams pleading “don’t say that it’s over” and “for all that we’ve got, don’t let go.”

As you may have gathered, this is a sad, mournful album. Given that, it’s more diverse than you might expect, which is at least partially down to producer Charlie Peacock. The duo experiments with a drum loop on “Dust to Dust,” sings in French on “Sacred Heart,” and covers both Etta James (her “Tell Mama” version of Clarence Carter’s “Tell Daddy”) and the Smashing Pumpkins (“Disarm”). The record flails somewhat in its second half, leading me to question how complete it was before the breakup, but it’s a nice artistic step up from Barton Hollow.

Which makes it even sadder that it will likely be the last. White and Williams were not together long enough to truly explore the potential on both of their albums, and given how well their voices and styles merge, that’s a shame. They got louder and darker on The Civil Wars – check out the spectral “Devil’s Backbone,” about being in love with a wicked man – and found new ways to connect, even as they were shattering.

The final track, a back porch demo called “D’Arline,” is specifically addressed to the title character, but contains more than enough harsh and beautiful sentiment to make it their final statement to each other. “Can’t live with you or without,” Williams sings. “I could get over you, but please don’t ask me to.” “You’ll always be the only one, even when you’re not.” “You always said you want me to be happy, but happiness was having you here with me.” It couldn’t be more perfect. The marriage didn’t work, the potential will remain unrealized. But the Civil Wars have left us with two good-to-great records, and though they’ve gone their separate ways, the love still lingers, and it’s sweet.

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Of course, things are considerably different if the duo act is, in fact, married, as Karin Bergquist and Linford Detwiler of Over the Rhine are.

The Ohio natives have been making music together since 1988, and have been married since 1996. They’re a shining example of how to maintain both a personal and musical relationship over decades, and they’re always open and honest about it. In 2004, while touring for Ohio, their grandest-sounding album, the pair took the same tactic as the Civil Wars – they canceled their tour, citing the strain on their marriage. And then they retrenched, and created the lovely and intimate Drunkard’s Prayer the next year.

Given that bump in the road, it’s such a joy to hear Over the Rhine’s latest, a two-CD affair called Meet Me at the Edge of the World. Recent OtR albums have been searching and restless, flirting with jazz and country, seeking a place to land. On Meet Me, they find it – this is the most simple, contented, joyous record they’ve made. Composed at (and based around) the pre-Civil War farm they have called home for years, the album is a celebration of the tiny moments that make up the best parts of our lives. It’s about being together for a long time, and finding a beautiful peace within that comfort.

Meet Me is broken up into two 35-minute pieces, each with their own title. Sacred Ground is the more lush of the two, a full band effort featuring drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Jennifer Condos and the great Eric Heywood on pedal steel. Blue Jean Sky focuses more on Bergquist and Detwiler, and has a more bare-bones, tire-swing-in-the-backyard kind of sound. They worked with producer Joe Henry again, and he’s proven to be a perfect match, bringing out the rustic intimacy of the band even when layering strings on their tunes.

Longtime fans will notice right away that Detwiler rarely touches his trademark piano on this album. Both discs are built around acoustic guitar, and of course Bergquist’s remarkable, phenomenal, why-isn’t-she-more-famous voice. The songs are often more traditional – “Called Home” is a low-key folk tune, “I’d Want You” a back-porch ballad, and “Gonna Let My Soul Catch My Body” a straight-up blues. But as the first disc winds on, the songs get deeper. “All Of It Was Music” is tremendous, its repetitive melody shining the spotlight on some gorgeous, nostalgic lyrics: “The newness of uncovered skin, your messy hair, your goofy grin, your shattered places deep within, all of it was music…”

Aimee Mann adds her voice to the delightful “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down,” more of a gentle encouragement than a fight song. Like much of this album, it’s about letting the little annoyances go and basking in the beauty all around us. It also sports the second-prettiest “ooh-ooh” in the band’s catalog. The prettiest lies in this album’s climax, the haunting “Wait.” Heywood sends this one into the stratosphere with his unearthly pedal steel lines, but its heart is a poetic lyric about holding on to the one you love: “Wait for the sound of the waterdog, to call up the ghosts through the cracks in my past, make the hair raise on my skin, tonight we’ll settle in, into a promise that I’ve held fast…” (And then “oooh.” You’ll see what I mean when you hear it.)

Paradoxically, while the first disc contains the best songs, the second disc is the better album. Blue Jean Sky is like a gentle stream nudging you on, song by lovely song. “All Over Ohio” is a true duet, Detwiler and Bergquist sharing verses. Detwiler sings more on this album than he ever has, and he gets the song’s finest moment, a rebuke of Christians who spread hate: “If you preach a subtle hatred, the Bible as your alibi, goddamn you right here in Ohio.” Most of the song, however, is about longing for love, and Bergquist, restrained through most of disc one, lets loose here.

As you listen to this disc, you can easily imagine Bergquist and Detwiler hanging out on their porch, singing these breezy, hard-won songs of peace. “Earthbound Love Song” finds the two harmonizing while musing about “a love like Johnny and June,” and while there is pain in their cover of The Band’s great “It Makes No Difference,” it’s washed away by the gorgeous “Blue Jean Sky,” on which Bergquist sings, “Love makes me wanna skin my knees, throw my heart upon your healing,” before asking for “a little kick-ass beauty.”

Bergquist blueses it up again on “Baby If This is Nowhere,” an ode to their Nowhere Farm, but is soon back to acoustic loveliness on “Wildflower Bouquet,” a song about gently accepting death. “I’ll be singing loud and laughing long, a blaze of glory and an untold song, so there’s no need for tears my friend…” After a brief yet lovely piano interlude, the pair slips into the finale, a gentle, moving tune called “Our Favorite Time of Light.” This one’s about catching the sunset at just the right time over the farm, and reveling in comfortable love, and it’s so pretty I can’t even do it justice. “When the day is bending low and rolling fields begin to glow, feels like we traveled all this way just so I could hear you say it’s our favorite time of light…”

These songs leave me with the warmest feeling. That’s the best way I can explain it. I listen to this album, and I feel full of love. It’s remarkable to hear these two people feeling this contented, this at peace, and catching it in perfect little songs. And that feeling radiates off this terrific record. It was funded by love – fans pre-ordered almost a year in advance – and it pays that love forward with every play. Not only is Meet Me at the Edge of the World one of Over the Rhine’s best albums, it’s one of 2013’s as well. But more importantly, it’s a portrait of a musical and personal relationship that has stood the test of time, and found a magical, wonderful place.

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Wow, this was a long one. I’ll try to keep it shorter next week when I talk about Toad the Wet Sprocket and the Polyphonic Spree. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.