The Phantom Tollbooth

Darkest Night of the Year
Artist:  Over The Rhine
Label:  Imaginary Apple Orchard Records, 1996
Time: 44:19 / 13 tracks

There's something about Over The Rhine's records—the sublime, sultry vocals and understated music usually lead me so much deeper into my own thoughts, that I rarely listen closely. While I have especially fond feelings for all their albums, I'd be hard pressed to name more than a handful of their songs. Because of that, the need to write this review, and hence concentrate more closely, on this album was just what I needed to investigate their sound more closely.

While Christmas is a celebration of great joy, it is the mysticalness and poignancy of this festival that Over the Rhine brings out best here. There is no disappearance into sentimentality, although there is a degree of brinkmanship. The cello and acoustic bass are exquisite. The production on the album is sparse, probably because these recordings were made over a few years, and some fans would prefer to hear more of Ric Hordinski's guitar. The way traditional melodies are used in a free and easy manner, fitted around new structures, will not sit well with the purists, but adds a little more appeal to those who enjoy the songs but tire of the traditional format.

If you're looking for a relaxing album for concentrating on or using as a background for your thoughts, this is a good choice.

By James Stewart  (10/29/98)

Starting with a moody rendition of "The First Noel," Cincinnati's Over the Rhine put a new spin on the Christmas classics, including not one, but two versions of "Silent Night". Yet both editions transcend the somberness of the original.

The Darkest Night of the Year also contains other staple Christmas classics redone such as "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", "Greensleeves" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem," yet manages to avoid the lengthy list of holiday cliches. All their Christmas covers break out of the stale mold of previous versions so well that you're half way through the album before you realize it's a Christmas album, and then it's too late. Not that it's all covers, either. The gray ambiance of "Coal Train" and "A Little Lower Than the Angels" both display Ric Hordinski's textural prowess on guitar, and the heartbreaking "Mary's Waltz" tells the story of a childhood friendship where one of two friends leaves "...on a night in December...".

On The Darkest Night of the Year, Over the Rhine take the familiar if not overused genre of Christmas albums and infuse it with a quiet energy. Capturing the melancholy that can come with the season. The darkest night, indeed.

Richard Richardson (11/5/98)

The true test of a really great Christmas album ought to be whether or not you can't wait until Christmas time to play it. The Darkest Night of the Year is one of those albums for myriad reasons. The truth is I've played this one as late as March, and as early as July, and it always sounds great. Over the Rhine's music is hauntingly beautiful, from the soothing strains of Karin Bergquist's voice, to Rick Hordinski's ethereal guitars, to Linford Detweiler's enthralling keyboards, to Brian Kelley jazzy drumming. There are some creatively dressed original songs here too, among some Christmas standards, and all of them are delivered with Over the Rhine's charming style.

The mix of this music's moody melancholy with the beautifully realized melodies would be enough to make this an all-time favorite Christmas album alone. There is something sorrowful in the mix here, however, that makes this album something more. Listen and you'll know that Joseph and Mary didn't have it easy being turned out of the inn, that the state of the world when Jesus was born was full of unrest, that the times were so bleak (like they are today) that a savior really needed to come into the world kicking and crying, with stars shining, and angels singing, and shepherds dropping to their knees.

In the creative hands of Over the Rhine, Christmas sounds like so much more than just another holiday to throw up the tree and string it with blinky lights, but a time to throw our hearts toward heaven and pray for more Light. Our dark souls needing solace are the perfect dusty old mangers for God to grant new birth, and thankfully he does. That's a feeling of joy and message of hope I can take with me all year long, and thanks to great helpers like this album, I can.

By Steven Stuart Baldwin (11/11/98)