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Over the Rhine - Three Albums In Six Months!

Last year I didn't follow up on an offer that could have ended up as one of the privileges of my life. Linford Detweiler from Over the  Rhine asked me to send some possible liner notes for what was at the time an up and coming compilation. I was busy with overseas trips at the time and used that as an excuse. The real reason, apart from the fact that I am an idiot, was that I could not imagine coming up with  words that would express the wonder of this band's music and what they mean to me and coming anywhere near literary enough to send to Linford! This band is so articulate in their music and their lyrics that it is hard to nail any kind of superlatives to express what they  do and sing.

If I had tried to write such notes, I would have gone back to a tent in England around 10.30 on a Thursday evening when I first heard Over the Rhine and my life was changed forever! The voice. The words. The song. I think it was "Paul and Virginia" from their Til We Have Faces debut album, named after a Belfast man C.S. Lewis's book. The album cover was a work of art, and their table at that Greenbelt  festival was also so crafted. I got the message early on. This was music as art and literature. it was poetry, it was mind provoking,
and it was deep-souled. It was earthly walk in a transcendent spirit. It was brilliant. I have since had the privilege of welcoming them on  stage, having them on my own late night Greenbelt chat show and shared a few good meals. They are as lovely in person as their music is. They have a grace, a charm and a thoughtfulness that is not just cerebral intelligence but a personal kindness. 

In the past seven months this band have released three albums and recorded a fourth. Okay, granted that one of the albums is a compilation with only one extra track, and another was a live album, but it is still staggeringly prolific in a world where the release of albums is dependent on how the last one is doing, tour schedules, what competition there is in the market etc., etc. That new studio album is expected to be released in late August and I am hopeful for a review of it on the web page before then but what about those other 
three recent releases...

Discount Fireworks

Discount Fireworks will be only of value to fans for the extra track, "Last Night On Earth," which actually maps out the territory where Over the Rhine work out their vocation, "where Elvis is King  and Jesus is Lord." The rest is familiar, and for the fan only a text for some fun debates about what should and should not have been included. Something from every official album is here. Like A Radio, from Til We Have Faces to Born from Drunkard's Prayer. Everything is meticulous but when you hear "Ohio," "Suitcase" and the aforementioned "Born," you can't help but think that this is a band who started off great and then matured into something far greater  still. I am unaware of many bands that have such a consistently
stunning back catalogue and still there is every reason to believe that the best is yet to come.

If you are wanting to get a flavour, then this covers every album and  style from the Ric Hordinski guitar sonics of the early days to the more home down pedal steels and organic charm of recent days. My advice though is put the money towards the full back catalogue. You really do need everything. 

Snow Angels

Anyone who regularly visits this web page will be aware of the recurring bee in my bonnet that Christmas is for all the year round and we have made a spiritual health damaging heresy to confine it to  a few weeks in December. The depth of theological energy that infuses the poetry of the nativity should not be left in the attic in boxes. Snow Angels is a Christmas album for all the year round. Yes, you can smell the chestnuts roasting, see the snow on the trees as you  peer through the curtains from your chair beside the feel of the fire blazing in the hearth as you listen to Linford at the piano and Karin leaning against it singing as beautifully as only Karin does. They might even have Santa hats on, but I am not sure. Whatever, this  music conjures the season but avoids the over familiarized blanding out of old carols. Somehow they have written songs that can house the images of winter and proverbs of faith without confining them to either. There is a prayer for a new redemption song, "Won't you help  us please/Help us just to sing along/A new redemption song and the "Forgiveness from the sky" that is falling in "Darlin' (Christmas Is Coming)." We end up in "Bethlehem in White Horse" and stay there in  "Little Town," which starts as the traditional carol should but then a re-write has us walking through the dark streets of the war torn modern day city finishing with a medley of Jesus best bits, "Put up  your swords forever/Forgive your enemies/Love your neighbor as yourself/Let your little children come to me."

Let your little children come to me. "Here It Is" perfectly highlights this band's ability to make the transcendent breath in the  dirt and straw of this world which makes them the most
incarnationally qualified for a Christmas album: "When they blow Gabriel's horn/Rip fiction from fact/I want to get caught/In some radical act/Of love and redemption/The sound of warm laughter/Some  true conversation/With a friend or my lover." I want a load of that--and I want it all the year round.

Live From Nowhere VOL 2

Over The Rhine have always managed some kind of record deal where they can release their own stuff between albums. In 2005 they came up with a great new tradition of releasing a live album of recordings from their by new annual Christmas tour. This is the second, and I personally can't wait for volume 3 next March. Before all that, what  about Vol 2? Well, three of their best songs in the last few years are here, "Long Lost Brother," "Jesus and New Orleans," and "I Want You To be My Love." Most notable here though are the rarities; the cover versions. Another version of "Fever"--this time a little less lazy and loungy than last year's. I wonder if this song can reappear on every volume! "Failed Christian" sits uncomfortably, as Linford  explains in his notes notes on the project. This is a song by Portstewart's Henry McCullough, one time cohort of Beatle Paul McCartney. Detweiler's notes on the album suggest some uncertainty about including a song that seems to go against the spiritual grain  of Over the Rhine. It's a slight incongruity is redeemed, however, in
being followed by "Long Lost Brother" praying for Jesus to "carry us across this ocean into the arms of forgiveness." Other rarities are  John Prine's "Everybody Wants To Feel Like You," Gilliam Welch's "Orphan Girl" formerly recorded by Emmylou Harris and Frank Loesser's funned-up Christmas song "Baby It's Cold Outside." Many of us never  get the chance to experience the Over the Rhine Christmas festivities. This will do until that thrill should come.

Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He  has written two books Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 which he is currently updating and The Rock Cries Out; Discovering Eternal Truth in Unlikely Music. He dabbles in poetry and songwriting and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or  night @ He has his own web page--Rhythms of Redemption at . He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.


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