Amateur Shortwave Radio
Artist: Over the Rhine
Label: Grey Ghost Records (1999)
Length: 58:45 / 10 songs
In the dazzling drama that is Over the Rhine, the band has completed their first thrilling act. The highlights included six studio albums (some for IRS Records and others released independently) from 1991 to 1997. Except for a few live appearances mostly opening for the Cowboy Junkies, Over the Rhine's appreciative audience has been left hanging in suspense since 1996, when the band was released from their IRS contract and lead guitarist Ric Hordinski left the band. Given these events, Over the Rhine (OtR) was bound to undergo changes, but just what would they be? Like a trusty stagehand flicking the lights on and off in the theatre lobby, the release of their seventh album, Amateur Shortwave Radio, may mark the end of the brief intermission before OtR's second act.
Although comprised mostly of live versions of previously released material, thrill seekers get a rare sneak preview into OtR's future sound with three new tracks. Not surprisingly, these songs continue in the spirit of the more laid-back hum the band employed on 1996's Good Dog, Bad Dog when Hordinski's influence on the band's sound started slowly slipping away. If principal songwriter Linford Detweiler is Romeo in this drama, and lead vocalist Karen Berquist is Juliet, than Hordinski was a sort of Tybalt. Some would argue that he was killed-off too soon for this play, but the show most definitely must go on, and enthusiastic fans are just as hopeful to avoid tragedy as the principal players. In Hordinski's absence, the band has moved into less edgy territory where pianos and Hammond B3 organs gently fill in the spaces left open by the missing waves of his emotive guitar. It is a sound that works well if you are comfortable with OtR's more dégagé, stripped-down side, but less so if soaring guitar is more your weapon of choice.
Even if they don't quite win awards for being among the band's best songs to date, the three new songs, "Moth," "Anyway," and "I Will Remember," are fine examples of the band's second act. Karen Berquist still sings like a sultry, earthbound angel caught between despair and promise, and Terri Templeton's harmony vocals provide an appropriate shadow. Detweiler takes center stage more often as the band's keyboardist, granting newcomer Mike Georgin the bass guitar role. The band's songs revisit familiar, comfortable themes. The band's resident pixie, Brian Kelley, still wields the drumsticks with distinction. Gratefully, some things really do stay the same.
As a playful aside, the band also offers up their first-ever cover songs, notwithstanding the traditional Christmas carols of 1996's The Darkest Night of the Year. Both covers, Rolling Stones's "Ruby Tuesday" and The Beatles's "Blackbird," are given the true OtR treatment, and those listeners who don't know any better would suspect these two tracks of being Over the Rhine originals. Of the two, "Ruby Tuesday" shows a bit more homage to the original, but "Blackbird" is obscured almost completely and delightfully by the band's signature sound, rendering it a perfect companion piece to their Til We Have Faces album. Both covers are fun, agreeable additions to the expanding OtR collection.
The reminder of the album consists of live cuts culled from different concerts over the years, including a contemporary version of their first album classic "Circle of Quiet." None of the song choices are surprising. The band played it safe by including a smattering of their sure hits, such as "Like a Radio" and "My Love is a Fever." Both of these tracks were recorded back when Hordinski still played in the band, whereas others, like "Jack's Valentine," feature G. Jack Henderson as the new guitarist. Henderson is a dependable player, but he lacks Hordinski's technical wizardry and enthusiastic flare. This could not be made more clear than by comparing the two players' different guitar work on the songs on which they appear. As solid as Henderson's playing is, the absence of Hordinski's respectable talents has brought the most change to OtR's sound, encouraging them to capitalize on their quieter side.
Detweiler calls the album "a little party before we remember to feign sophistication and reserve. Pull a string, there's a bang and ten years' worth of confetti metaphors fly, landing on the floor a few feet away, or in our hair." And what a brilliant backstage party it is. Despite the omission of more upbeat favorites like "Fly Dance," "How Does It Feel (To Be on My Mind)," "Happy with Myself?," "Daddy Untwisted," and "A Gospel Number," Amateur Shortwave Radio is still a keen collection of sonic snapshots, a playful stopgap, a fun piece of filler until the show resumes. Soon, the curtain will part, and Over the Rhine will take the stage for Act Two. Rest assured it will be worth watching.
Steven S. Baldwin 10/21/99