Miracles Out of Nowhere
Over the Rhine Delivers the Year's First Glorious Surprise

I’ve written a lot already this year about how I only plan to review the things that bring me joy. I’ve had a few comments from people that I seem to be Marie Kondo-ing tm3am, and I swear to God I had never heard of Kondo before those comments. Now I have, and her approach seems to be exactly what I’m aiming for: tossing out all the things that don’t bring me happiness. Or at least not writing about the records I don’t care as much about.

This week is a good case in point. I was all set to follow up last week’s reviews with thoughts on new ones from James Blake and Sharon Van Etten. And then I started to dread sitting down to write this week’s missive, and I finally figured out why: I don’t have anything to say about the new ones from James Blake and Sharon Van Etten. Blake’s album is boring, trading in his former transcendence for radio-ready pop music, and Van Etten’s album is good, but not in a way that makes me excited to write about it. It would just be variations of “her voice is strong” and “her melodies are usually interesting” with some additional praise for “No One’s Easy to Love,” my favorite thing on the record.

Does that sound exciting to read to you? Or would you lose interest by the third paragraph? I know I wouldn’t be able to summon up a lot of energy to enthrall you. Fair play to you if you like those records, but I know I would rather wax ecstatic about something I truly love.

Thankfully, something I truly love found its way to my inbox this week, and I’ve been listening to it whenever I have the chance. About two years ago I paid up front for three new albums from Over the Rhine, and the first of them, called Love and Revelation, was sent to backers this week. It’s not officially out until March, and I have to admit I still get a thrill from listening to music before its release date, even if the band sends it to me and dozens of others at the same time.

Ordinarily, of course, I would wait until that release date to write about a record like this, one that I sincerely hope everyone reading this will check out. But you can pre-order the album now, and I hope by the time I am done jabbering about it, you will. I’ve been an Over the Rhine fan for 15 years now, having jumped aboard with their extraordinary double album Ohio, and I’ve seen them live half a dozen times. They retain their power to move me like few other artists can, and they do it again on this new album.

Over the Rhine is a husband-and-wife duo. The husband, Linford Detweiler, is the piano player, and he sings occasionally, his rough, low tones adding a touch of earth to the angelic tones of his wife, Karin Bergquist. Karin is, without a doubt, one of my four or five favorite singers alive. Patsy Cline is the closest approximate, but Bergquist is her own thing, her voice containing such depth of feeling and history, drawing from tradition while singing from an overflowing heart. I can’t do it justice in words, but her voice stirs something inside of me, something that only stirs at the most powerful of musical expressions.

On Love and Revelation, she uses that voice to sing about the hardship of life, about the pain of leaving good things behind, about the healing balm of music and about the all-reaching love of God. This is one of those albums that sounds stripped-back (and at times it is), but when you really listen you can hear so many elements working in concert, creating an atmosphere of quiet beauty. There are strings all over this record, but they’re so subtle that you may not notice them right away. Everything here, from the tender acoustic guitars to the generous peals of pedal steel to the always perfectly restrained drumming of Jay Bellerose, is in service to these songs, and to Karin Bergquist’s glorious voice.

There’s a lot here that could be called traditional folk music, from the sad opener “Los Lunas” to the sweeping “Broken Angels,” and once again Over the Rhine has created an album of songs that could be brand new or could be a hundred years old. Along the way, they’ve written some of my favorite things in their catalog. The melancholy “Given Road” cracks me open, the strings dancing slowly with Greg Liesz’s wonderful, weeping pedal steel. “I miss what I’m forgetting, I try not to but I’m letting go of any shred of anything that held you here,” Bergquist sings before launching into a wordless refrain that sends shivers.

“Let You Down” is a song of devotion, and the band’s slide guitarist, Brad Meinerding, sings lead with Bergquist complementing his high tenor perfectly. It’s a gorgeous string-accented weeper. And Detweiler joins his wife on lead vocals on the lovely “Betting on the Muse,” a song about their musical relationship – for years, Detweiler kept silent and in the background, and I wish he’d started singing with the band earlier. It’s just Bergquist, a guitar and a drum set on the shuffling title track, but it’s marvelous, a call for more understanding and more love in the face of a populace armed to the teeth.

But they save my favorite for the end. “May God Love You (Like You’ve Never Been Loved)” is, bar none, one of the prettiest songs this band has ever given us. It’s about our need for wholeness, our deep desire for something greater than ourselves to pull us through. “There are no wise men traveling, there is no gift to bring, but if you welcome home a child you’ve thrown your hat into the ring, we’re not curable but we’re treatable and that’s why I still sing, may God love you like you’ve never been loved…” It’s a song that dives to the lowest depths this album plumbs and then looks up, crying out, certain of the direction from which grace will come.

I will never, ever tire of songs that that one, or albums like this one. Bergquist and Detwiler pack so much feeling, so much agony and hope, into the 41 minutes of Love and Revelation that it’s a wonder that it sounds so effortless. This is the 14th Over the Rhine album, and by now they have their sound down to a science. But it’s still the most deeply emotional stuff, and it still draws me into another place, and I’m still incredibly grateful for it. In a couple months, when you get to hear this album too, I hope it will do for you what it does for me.

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I was going to write a bit about Weezer this week, but I think I’ll save it, since there isn’t much of interest heading our way next Friday. I’ll just say that the Teal Album came out of nowhere and made me happy, and I can only hope the coming seven days hold more surprises like this one. Until then, be good to each other.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.