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April 2001 Pick of the Month
Films for Radio 
Artist:Over the Rhine 
Label:  BackPorch/Virgin 
Time: 11 tracks/ 57:02 mins 

Brilliant.   In a word brilliant.   That's the best way to describe the newest release from Over the Rhine.  Films for Radio is a piece of art that  is to be treasured, enjoyed and cherished.   This album is what is right with music.   Lush vocals from the angelic Karin Bergquist, great music from the band, incorporating many instruments from guitars and drums to pianos to violins, all come together to make one of the best albums of this year, and I think that statement will still stand come December. 

The poetry on this album is amazing, conjuring images of beauty that few bands are able to do. The songs are outstanding.  With many spiritual images and ideas being used.   The track "Goodbye (This is Not Goodbye)" which was used on the Roaring Lambs compilation from Squint Entertainment is a great song. The layers of instrumentation accompanying Karin's beautiful voice create a song that is just a step behind the sound of angels. 

The opening track "The World Can Wait" is a perfect opener with its rock and roll edge that hooks in the listener.  Over the Rhine get experimental on a song entitled ""The Body Is A Stairway of Skin" using just drum loops and a lap steel.  Very original work. 

Another outstanding track is the very climactic track entitled "I Radio Heaven" which is beautiful in its crescendo that continues to build over and over until you are trapped in the lush vast tones of Karin's voice. 

The song "Moth" is pure pop bliss.  With a bit of a slanted lyrical content the song is very catchy with a melody that is hard to get out of your head.   And a chorus with great pop to it.  It calls the listener to a point of confrontation almost: 

There's no savior hanging on this cross 
It isn't suffering we fear but loss 
This is closer that I ever came 
Just a burning moth without a flame 
This album is more accessible then some of their earlier work.  All in all this album is going to be one that is considered one of the best albums of  the year, if not the last couple of years, in my opinion.   I highly  recommend it; you might actually be better of for having listened to it! 

Aaron Bell 3/31/2001

Within moments of the opening song, "The World Can Wait," it is clear that Over the Rhine has turned a page in their development as a band. Their new record Films for Radio shows them (if I may borrow their lyricist’s own words) "painting with new, more vivid colors" in their most radio-ready and solidly produced album yet. While some may miss the reverence and intimacy of previous recordings, it is exciting to see this talented group avoid redundancy and push themselves to take risks. Past Over the Rhine efforts distilled yearnings — spiritual, sexual, and otherwise — into potent potions. Films for Radio indulges in vast soundscapes, thundering rhythms, resonant strings, samples, and loops. It’s a bold, unflinching sound. 

A Quick History

In spite of their rocky experiences with differing lineups, failing record labels, and periods of nearly giving up the ghost, Linford Detweiler and Karen Bergquist are on what is probably the biggest roll of their ten-plus-year career as a band. The first chapter might be called "the coffee shop" era: the up close and personal acoustic pop of Til We Have Faces and Patience. Then came rock and roll. Over the Rhine put themselves on the radio and on the map in 1994 with Eve. It was a bold, playful, bluesy record with a searing electric sound. While it earned them a larger audience, it disgruntled some of the faithful for whom the band was a well-kept secret that they preferred to keep to themselves. But Karen Bergquist’s vocals were growing stronger, and the sound indicated a readiness to play bigger venues. The lyrics were evolving too, combining their trademark poetry with some audaciously spontaneous lyrical tomfoolery. It only made sense that they add some new colors to their archive.

After their label folded, they struggled to get another record finished on their own, and what resulted was their most critically acclaimed project yet—1996’s Good Dog, Bad Dog. It was naked and passionate where Eve was dressed-up and whimsical. Thanks to Good Dog’s word-of-mouth, their fan base across the country continued to grow. In 1999, they began a fruitful collaborative effort as the second half of the ever popular Cowboy Junkies, which put them on the stage of Sessions at West 54th, and even The Late Show with David Letterman. That only threw fuel on the fire. More and more people were curious. And so, in 2000, Good Dog, Bad Dog was re-released, as strong and fresh as ever. "The little record that could" further established their powerful talents for poetic lyrics, evocative guitars both electric and acoustic, and Karen’s amazing ethereal vocals. 

So what next? An atmospheric low-profile Christmas album (The Darkest Night of the Year) and a mish-mash of new sounds and live recordings from the archive (Amateur Shortwave Radio) kept the fans happy while providing a preview of the future…a bigger, lush, resonant ambience.

2001: Films for Radio

Films for Radio may make some fans uncomfortable. It represents the band’s boldest metamorphosis to date. Trendy pyrotechnics — loops, samples, and drum machines — flicker around the edges. It seems here that Over the Rhine is not so much a band as it is Karen, transmitting Linford’s sentiments, with a rotating body of performers and tools that cast different light on her vocals. And oh…that voice. Karen’s singing has become increasingly confident, and here she’s quite an acrobat. She sings with the force of Tori Amos and Sinead O’Connor, without showing off. She brings powerful expression to some of Linford’s most soul-searching and riddling lyrics. The focus, this time, has turned further inward, less interested in the specifics of story that colored Good Dog, Bad Dog and more concerned with mysteries and secrets. 

In the liner notes, Detweiler describes the songs as being about "internal worlds, about the dialogue that runs inside all of us, conversations we have with ourselves." Indeed, the theme of all the things "left unsaid" rises again and again. The world seems a busy noisy place, and the singer is continually appealing for everything to pause to allow for communion, communication, and confession, again blurring the linguistic lines between sex and the spirit. 

In "The World Can Wait", the lines seem an echo of Emmylou Harris’s "Deeper Well" describing a desperate quest for a thirst-quenching encounter with the beloved, either carnal or otherwise. Is the lover singing to his beloved, or the sinner to God, or the artist to the audience? 

"Give Me Strength", written by pop singer Dido, was recorded for the soundtrack to a prime time drama, but here it boils the poetry down to a plaintive plea for freedom from past mistakes. In a sense, it echoes the recurring line in the film Magnolia—"We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us." 

"I Radio Heaven" seems to be the album’s banner lyric, as the singer "moves the antenna" and "switches the channels" in an attempt to connect with God. Here, Karen sounds almost desperate, repeating the chorus like a mantra. 

"The Body is a Stairway of Skin," perhaps the most provocative musical striptease you’ll ever hear, leaves us to wonder if the subject is the singer or the song. The teasing continues in "I Radio Heaven" when, in the middle of what seems a prayer the voice suddenly changes—"I am the song that is grinning."

There will no doubt be a lot of talk among longtime fans about this new flavor of Over the Rhine. This record certainly indicates that the band is on a larger stage, with more resources, ready to conquer the world. That can be disappointing, to feel the wind carrying them away from those small and intimate venues, away from that direct and simple acoustic sound that gave Good Dog, Bad Dog its weight. What I find a bit troubling is that Good Dog, Bad Dog had a timeless quality to it, while Films for Radio brandishes current musical trends without apology. Good Dog was wholly and completely their own, Over the Rhine’s essence laid bare; Films could be interpreted as the band trying on many different costumes. I’ve lost track of how many vocalists have followed the example of Portishead, experimenting with the juxtaposition of drum loops and a haunting vocal. Not only that, but the songs on Films are much longer, which works in the explorative, unhurried "Little Blue River," but in the case of "Goodbye" becomes redundant and perhaps a bit bombastic for lyrics of such a private, confiding quality.

But this band’s recordings are not their strongest suit. Over the Rhine is one of those bands that should be experienced, first and foremost, as a live act. The album stands more as a journal of their discoveries along the road. There is a chemistry between Detweiler, Bergquist, and their changing body of collaborators that can’t be captured fully on a record. In fact the best thing about Films for Radio, in my opinion, is its live-quality, unembellished version of "Little Blue River," presented in the full eight-minute splendor of its in-concert manifestation. It is the centerpiece of this collection. And the album closes with "When I Go," as sparse and razor-edged as anything in their past work. There you can tell that Over the Rhine hasn’t lost hold of who they are. They’ve just enhanced the exciting variety of music they can accomplish. 

"Help me tell the truth/you see that’s all I’m trying to do/ is tell the truth,"  Bergquist sings in "Goodbye (This is Not Goodbye)." And there’s the rub. The truth is elusive; it doesn’t fit in a box, musical or otherwise. But they’re trying hard, with each of these porous, powerful songs, to find windows where there are no doors. And you can’t help but bask in the light that’s coming through.
 

Jeffrey Overstreet 4/27/2001


 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.  He has been published in Christianity and the Arts Magazine, The New Christian Herald, and AngliCan Arts Magazine, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association.  You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com

 

   
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