Album Review: Over the Rhine, ‘Meet Me at the Edge of the World’

I’ve always loved the section of George Steiner’s Real Presences where he describes the role of art as helping us get through the metaphoric “Saturday” space between the “suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste” of (Good) Friday and the “dream of liberation” and rebirth that is (Easter) Sunday. Steiner writes of this “Sabbatarian” aesthetic space:

The apprehensions and figurations in the play of metaphysical imagining, in the poem and the music, which tell of pain and hope, of the flesh which is said to taste of ash and of the spirit which is said to have the savour of fire, are always Sabbatarian. They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?

meet meOver the Rhine’s gorgeous new double album, Meet Me at the Edge of the World (stream it here), is precisely this sort of art. It helps us to be patient amidst the burden and immensity of waiting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album so eloquently and tenderly express the Christian truism of “now and not yet,” mostly by painting pictures of cottonwood and tupelo trees, goldenrod in the autumn, wedding dresses and porch swings.

The two discs that comprise Meet Me (released Sept. 3)–entitled “Sacred Ground” and “Blue Jean Sky”–represent the sacredness of both life’s “now” and “not yet.” Perhaps fittingly, the nine songs that make up the “Sacred Ground” side (the more earth-bound half, complete with blood, teeth marks and scars) were recorded on March 28-30, 2013 (Maundy Thursday-Holy Saturday). That disc ends with the song “Wait,” in which Karin Bergquist sings, Life is a beauty that’s mocking you / She’s a river to drown in while singing the blues.

The 10 songs of  “Blue Jean Sky,” on the other hand, are more mindful of death, resurrection and the eschatological. They are songs of love, dreams, hope, healing and blackbirds in the once and future farms of Ohio. In my favorite song on this disc, “Wildflower Bouquet,” Bergquist sings about the types of flowers she desires when she is “called home”: If I die in the winter send roses  / In the spring, magnolias / If I’m called in the summer or in the fall  / Best of all – bring me a wildflower bouquet. Your tears will not be necessary / Build a blazing fire, drink something merry / When the sparks fly off into the wind / That will be me blowing away.

These songs were recorded on April 1-3, 2013, in the days following Easter.

The sacred and mundane, the mortal and immortal, the horizons of earth and sky merge on both halves of Meet Me, a collection of love songs inspired by Over the Rhine’s home on a farm in Highland County, Ohio.

OTROver the Rhine is the duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, a married couple who have made music together for a quarter century. Meet Me, their 15th studio release, is not their first double album. In 2003 they released the exquisite Ohio. It seems the duo reserve their magnum opuses for music where the muse is their home state.

“Home” is indeed the central idea of Meet Me. Home as in: a place of settledness; or more specifically for Berguist and Detweiler: the Old pre-Civil War brick house / Standin tall and straight somehow / Called home (“Called Home”). As Detweiler recently noted in an interview with NPR, “I think this is a record about finding a place, finding a home. I think we’re still aware that loved ones are moving on, and there’s joy and sorrow on the record. But there is a sense of, ‘We’re gonna be okay.’”

These songs all grew loosely out of the soil we live on. We had always dreamed of having a piece of unpaved earth which would serve as our home base, just like many other American artists or writers that are immediately associated with a specific geographical place. We call our place Nowhere Farm: nowhere, or now here, depending on how you look at it.

The “now here” way of looking at home’s temporality is especially present on Meet Me, which riffs on the Christian understanding of home in both the earthly and heavenly senses. Note the meaning of “home” in the first stanza of “Called Home” (Just shy of Breakin’ Down / There’s a bend in the road that I have found / Called home) versus the last stanza: Our bodies’ motion comes to rest / When we are at last / Called home.

The eschatological hopes of our heavenly home–long a trope of the Appalachian hymnody, blues and folk of which Over the Rhine is descendant–is everywhere on the record, in songs like “Gonna Let My Soul Catch My Body” (I’m gonna lay out fine linen / Gonna make up my dyin’ bed / If you call me sweet Jesus / I’m ready to lay down my head). But this “I’ll fly away” escapist sensibility is challenged at times too, such as in the standout “Earthbound Lovesong”: They left the jukebox loaded / Our world exploded / Did the preacher have it all wrong? / Is heaven a place you fly off to / When the day is done? / Or do you work right here / On an earthbound love song?

In the end, Over the Rhine presents a world where all reality is sacramental. The thesis can perhaps be summed up in the song “All of It Was Music,” where Bergquist sings of the miraculous melodies that come from even the most mundane: The night was bending in a grin / As streetlight shadows tattooed skin / Whatever we were tangled in / All of it was music. … The humming of the window unit / The street noise often sang right through it / A drunken song somehow we knew that / Even it was music.

The “edge” of the world Over the Rhine dwells within is the horizon-line space between ground and sky, the flesh and spirit, mortality and immortality. But in contrast to the hard-line that “edge” implies, it’s actually a far blurrier space, where the Holy Spirit mingles with rivers, trees, leaves, skinned knees and broken hearts. In this world, “sacred ground” isn’t an oxymoron, and “blue jean” isn’t a demeaning adjective to describe the heavenlies. Rather, it’s the language that best fits our experience of the quotidian mysteries that buzz around a Christ-haunted world where, as OTR declares, All the ghosts are in the trees.

The album makes me think of Heidegger’s concept of the “fourfold” manner in which humans dwell on earth: “to save the earth, to receive the sky, to await the divinities, to escort mortals.” Earth, sky, the divine, and the mortal. It’s all there in Over the Rhine’s music. And it’s all there in any of our lives.

Heidegger said, “To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell.” (“Building Dwelling Thinking”). In our brief time on this planet, we dwell. We find a bend in the road to call home.

Home is a place of healing, forgiveness, growth, stability and protection in a world that can be frightfully hostile. Whether it be a few years, a few decades or a lifetime, the continuity of home is a heavenly gift: armor against the relentless barrage of change. But home is about more than just biding one’s mortal time before before being “called home” in the final sense. To find and make an earthly home is to continue the task of Adam, spreading Eden’s order and flourishing outward in the chaos, making the world a more graceful place. Writing about America’s western frontier and the concept of a homestead in her glorious essay, “When I Was a Child,” Marilynne Robinson (who has written books with titles like Home and Housekeeping), reflects:

I must say how beautiful human society seems to me, especially in those attenuated forms so characteristic of the West — isolated towns and single houses which sometimes offer only the merest, barest amenities: light, warmth, supper, familiarity. We have colonised a hostile planet, and we must staunch every opening where cold and dark might pour through and destroy the false climates we make, the tiny simulations of forgotten seasons beside the Euphrates, or in Eden. At a certain level housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together, make the world salubrious, savory, and warm. I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental.

Over the Rhine has always been a band with a knack for capturing the sacramental beauties of home and place. Meet Me At the Edge of the World is their latest–and perhaps most masterful–addition to a body of work that, taken as a whole, is among the most impressive faith-oriented catalogue of songs you’ll find anywhere.

It’s the best kind of rainy day, homebound music: dusty and bedraggled, weary yet wonder-filled, dazzling in its ability to simultaneously convey contentment and restlessness. It’s the happy longing, the divine discontent, of sitting on a porch swing with a loved one, at rest but restless for what lies beyond the fields of our vision. The final lines of the album’s closer, “Favorite Time of Light,” express it perfectly: Leave the dishes in the sink don’t overthink it / Close up the brokenhearted piano / Join me on the porch if you can swing it / Let’s dream an ocean in Ohio. 

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Live Music

I’m not the first person to suggest that there is something inherently better about live musical performances, and even though we are rapidly sinking into an atomized digital age, I don’t think I’ll be the last: there is enough of the devouring ego in man to always desire the ambrosian nectar of live adoration. Still, with the rise of convenient personal digital music players, falling prices of CDs and iTunes tracks, and the ease of musical piracy, paying the price for admission to a live show seems a bit overrated for the average music listener. Combine the price of the ticket with the inconvenience of being miles from the center stage, pressed up against the bodies of total strangers, and breathing in stifling stadium air and the experience is certainly not about to remind anyone of the slick music video on VH1. Classical music concerts are sometimes a little bit better since you are guaranteed your own seat, but again, unless you are willing to fork out enough cash to have purchased six or seven CDs, you probably will be seated in the rafters and, despite the acoustic engineer’s claims to the contrary, miss out on the full sound of the quartet three-thousand leagues below you.

With the cards stacked against you in this manner, what could induce you to consider my claim that live performances are better than the recorded type? Well, for starters, the musicians know there is something different about their performance in front of an audience. Consider this observation from Arnold Steinhardt, first violin of the Guarneri String Quartet, on his first recording session:

Even before the first note sounded, something was wrong or, at the very least, missing. The ballroom was empty, devoid of any audience. As performing musicians, we exist not just to play but to play for someone, to interest, then involve and finally, move the live, receptive listener sitting expectantly before us. Continue reading

Worse than Asparagus: Charlie Lehardy on Jazz

Charlie Lehardy thinks jazz is (gasp!) worse than asparagus:

Jazz may be worse than asparagus.

As a musician, I have great respect for the virtuosity of jazz artists, most of whom are masters of their instruments. I can relate to the desire to do something novel and unconventional. But deep down in the musical recesses of my soul, jazz kills whatever is blooming there. And actually, I think that’s the point.

Jazz is the anti-music.

If that’s not strong enough for you, try this:

If art has any weakness, it’s in the way it is ultimately a reflection of its culture and times. As our culture has become more narcissistic, art, too, has fallen in love with itself. It has become so unconventional and self-referential that only insiders can appreciate it. Art of all stripes — the fine arts, music, literature, architecture — has exchanged objective/traditional measures of beauty for the knowing winks and nods of the self-congratulating art community itself.

It’s hard to know where art might go next. Unconventionality itself has now become conventional — and boring. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a urinal) has had a thousand imitators, each less interesting (and less provocative) than the last.

Likewise, jazz has become conventional in its desperate search for edginess. The earliest jazz virtuosos were looking for something new, something fresh. At first, what they were attempting seemed like the discovery of fire all over again. Now, decades later, every blaring trumpet and squealing saxophone sounds like the last. We’re stuck in a musical rut.

This, of course, is the danger of a musical tradition that sees ‘rule breaking’ as an important artistic element (the tradition, of course, stretches back to Mozart, at least).  It will always run the risk of becoming anti-tradition and anti-form.

Whether Charlie’s analysis of art is correct is, of course, debatable (though he does have Bloom on his side, I think!).  But the deeper point about the self-destructive nature of ‘pushing the limits’ to the point where they no longer exist is, I think, exactly right.*

*It’s worth pointing out (again!) that Charlie is one of the blogosphere’s best-kept secrets.  If you’re looking for good prose to imitate, read him.  He knows how to turn a phrase with the best of them.

Selling Classical Music

Is classical music dying?

While it may depend upon what we mean by “classical”,there has been concern among the cultural elite that the symphony no longer holds its position of cultural importance.

Case in point:  while the LA Philharmonic opened the acoustically excellent and architecturally interesting Walt Disney Concert Hall two years ago, it has continued to have “family friendly” nights in order to boost its sagging attendance.  Given the availability of pre-concert tickets at a Sunday afternoon showing, it seems attendance levels are returning to their “pre-WDCH” levels.

Now, the New York Philharmonic has hired Alan Gilbert, a relatively unknown conductor, to be its music director.  Gilbert is only 40, an infant by classical music’s standards.

More importantly, probably you haven’t heard of him or the decision.  Even if record sales and attendance levels are constant or improving, the New York Philharmonic and classical music remain irrelevant to the mainstream culture of America.

But it wasn’t always this way: Continue reading

Playlist for a Trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix

First, start off strong with a little Beethoven. Or a lot of Beethoven, depending on how you quantify it. His 2nd and 4th piano concerti (concertos?) will put you in the mood for the impending drive. It’s important to get the trip started on the right foot, so what better place to turn than the majestic, stirring and passionate works of the master?

Be warned: Beethoven can be a little draining. After all, it takes work to listen to and enjoy. You’ll need to relax for a while. May I suggest the timeless (for reasons other than Beethoven’s) Going Public by that legendary Aussie group Newsboys? It’s mindless. It’s trite. And it’s terrible. It’s perfect for our purpose of having fun while getting away from LA. You’ll laugh at the wanna-be techno beats, and the awful lyrics. It’s aged about as well as an open bottle of Two-Buck Chuck. Is there a CD that’s aged worse? Not that you’ll listen to on this trip–you can only take so much.

But the trip down memory lane has been fun, so why not continue it? Has Pearl Jam aged as badly as Newsboys? You hope not–you’re scared to find out. And then you put in Yield, starting at the bottom of their discography. It didn’t sell as well as the others, but it still sounds good. “Given to Fly,” “Wishlist,” and
“All those Yesterdays” will put you in a happy melancholy stupor that is only fitting for grunge and driving. While the screaming persists in some songs–I never enjoy Vedder when he is unintelligible–much of it is melodic, smooth and downright interesting. Now that you’re finally beyond the bulk of the traffic, you can relax a little bit.

You’re hope is up now–will the other Pearl Jam cd’s be just as good? You turn to Vitalogy, continuing to skip over the screaming. “Better Man” sounds better than ever. “Courderoy” is classic. But you’re really surprised by the richness of “Nothingman.” The 6/8 times grooves, and Vedder’s vocals are perfect for the depressing, yet enchanting tune. You listen to it twice–it’s just that good.

Now simultaneously enthused by returning to the old wine of Pearl Jam, and depressed by their lyrics, you turn to No Code. You probably haven’t listened to this one much–it has very fewer radio songs than some of their others. But there is some good stuff here–”Who You Are” is perfectly enjoyable. “Around the Bend” is a fitting ballad ending to a mildly more optimistic and hopeful album. But by this point, you’re borderline overdosed on Pearl Jam and about to move on. It’s all starting to sound the same.

But then you put in Ten–their first album–and it reminds you why Pearl Jam was the best of the grunge bands. Lyrically, they are far more mature than Nirvana. Musically, they were far more talented. It begins to emerge that for early Pearl Jam, Mike McCready’s guitars held a more prominent position than during their later albums. “Even Flow” ends on a Hendrix-like guitar solo, which occurs several times on the album and is noticeably lacking in later albums. If Going Public was an Edsel, Ten is a Rolls Royce. Of the albums you’ve heard in your car, only Yield approximates Ten’s staying power.

You’re almost to Phoenix–not much time left. It’s been an interesting journey through Pearl Jam–you’re a more mature, more astute listener then you were 10 years ago, and at the end of the trip you are delighted to discover that much in Pearl Jam holds up to careful scrutiny. But you’re also out of good music, and realize that you need to buy some more. Good thing Christmas is coming.

What’s the best rock and roll song of all time?

And now for something completely different.Rockin' out with Muse

Let’s save the questions about the nature of music, it’s relationship to mathematics, how in the world it taps into the depths of the human soul so effectively and universally, how it relates to language and communication and the divine logos, and all the rest of it for another time!

Right now what’s on my mind is a much simpler (but much more difficult?) question of aesthetic ranking: What is the best rock song ever written?

Please help me move towards answering this question of such deep importance for our century.

Continue reading