Over the Rhine: “The Trumpet Child”
They tell us as much on the third track of their latest album recorded under the Over the Rhine banner, titled… wait for it… “I’m On a Roll.” And indeed, after over two decades of recording together, this dynamic duo has yet to release a dud album, and several of them– the home-grown acoustic sketches of Good Dog Bad Dog, the bright, big-screen pop of Films for Radio, the staggering two-disc feast of Ohio— surely qualify as classics. Add to that the fact that they’ve put a career-spanning retrospective, a pair live recordings, and a Christmas album in the can within the past two year and… well, what more can we say? They’re on a roll.
And they have every reason to be confident and increasingly bold in their songwriting, but also to step back, shake off their tendency for grim introspection, and have some fun. After all, their last non-holiday studio album, Drunkard’s Prayer, was a brutally honest account of an almost-failed marriage. So strong was its power that it became a sort of marriage counseling device for couples across the country, and Linford and Karin were able to add “therapists” to their growing list of vocational titles. It was an album powerful enough to heal wounds and bridge divides, but also to make us all wish for a less serious Over the Rhine next time around.
All of these factors were surely taken into account during the conception of their latest baby, The Trumpet Child— the closest thing in the OtR canon to a party record. Loose and lively, spirited and flirtatious, it’s an album that finds Linford and Karin sounding more comfortable than ever in their own skin. They’re not out to save the world, a marriage, or anything else; rather, they’re kicking back and having fun, celebrating all the best parts of being human: love, sex, poetry, and Tom Waits.
More than anything, it’s a celebration of American music. They name-drop many of their idols here– everyone from John Prine to Emmylou Harris– and, if the name of Cole Porter is invoked on every piece of publicity and every review the album receives, it’s because there’s a clear nod to the pre-war pop of yesteryear in a good many of these songs.
And they’ve invited plenty of folks along to join the celebration. Producer Brad Jones gives them the best production they’ve ever enjoyed, bringing in a motley, ad-hoc crew of horns, woods, and strings to lend these songs an authentic, festive edge. And the band’s new secret weapon– touring drummer Mickey Grimm– bangs away at whatever he can get his hands on, making it the livliest, most upbeat Over the Rhine album ever.
Lyrically, they find themselves taking stock of their lives and music in “I Don’t Wanna Waste Your Time,” the jazzy, big-band opener, and in the celebratory “I’m On a Roll.” They celebrate carnal love on long-time concert favorite “Trouble,” Karin’s sultry homage to her husband’s stubble. And they roll out the soul and the funk on “Let’s Spend the Day in Bed,” which name-drops Shel Silverstein and declares no shame for “a little lazy love.”
But they haven’t forgotten the fact that we’re at war and the world is falling apart, either. “Nothing is Innocent,” which could be an acoustic outtake from Beth Gibbons, laments a wayward country, while a cute little country number called “If a Song Could be President” is both the funniest and somehow the most heartbreaking political statement the band could have made– a wistful prayer for better times.
Hope is found in the promised return of “The Trumpet Child,” who, with “Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace,” will right all the wrongs of our fallen world. Linford’s liner notes describe the song as being about the function of music in the Bible, and especially during the End Times, and what, exactly, is on God’s iPod. Who knows? Maybe He’s listening to the new Over the Rhine record. Regardless, the title cut is one of the band’s most inspiring and powerful moments.
And then there’s the Tom Waits song. “Don’t Wait for Tom” is a standout track because, if nothing else, it sounds like… well, a Tom Waits song. Over junkyard percussion, a carnival piano, and spooky clarinet, Linford monotones a rambling, spoken-word tribute to one of American music’s greatest treasures. I can’t imagine a more perfect tribute to the man– a “carnival barker for kingdom dot come,” who “shouts like he’s gonna save Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Put it all together and it’s an album fans will cherish, a spirited and spirit-filled set of songs that serve as celebration when times are good, a reminder of God’s grace when times are hard. And if, in some ways, it’s relatively light fare by Over the Rhine standards… well, that’s kinda the point. I’m sure the Heavy Stuff will return for their next album. For now, why argue with such a fun, irresistible record?
After all… these guys are on a roll.