I doubt Over the Rhine knows anything about this. For a decade now they have made music that can be called truly gorgeous without sounding like pretentious fools. The band centers around vocalist Karin Bergquist and keyboardist Linford Detweiler; they started writing songs together in the Cincinnati neighborhood that gave the band its name and released two independent records before signing with IRS. When the label folded they decided to go out on their own. Over the Rhine recorded their next album in Detweiler's house; the result, 1996's Good Dog Bad Dog, is indisputably their masterpiece, and, fortunately for the band, instantly became the decade's Little Record that Could.
Critics effused over Bergquist's dizzying vocals. Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies invited the band on tour, both to open shows and play in the Junkies lineup, and they ended up recording together as well. As a result of their national exposure Bergquist and Detweiler performed their own music on CBS This Morning without Good Dog Bad Dog ever having a national release. (Back Porch Records, a division of Virgin, has since brought Good Dog Bad Dog out on its label.)
Good Dog Bad Dog is a must-have, but a newer live compilation, Amateur Shortwave Radio, released last year, is a good introduction to some of the band's fans' favorites, and contains new material for long-time admirers. The most exciting aspect of the record is the extent to which it conveys the obvious pleasure that Bergquist and Detweiler take from performing together, enhanced surely by the fact that they have been married now for four years. I've seen them perform perhaps half a dozen times, and the tracks are surprisingly faithful to the live shows. Their cover of "Ruby Tuesday" sounds particularly ebullient, that of "Blackbird" particularly harrowing. "Moth," a new track, is worth the price alone. "Like a Radio" and "Circle of Quiet" have been popular choices in the past and here run pleasantly long. "My Love Is a Fever," a song destined for live performance, sounds like Beat poetry backed by the blues (imagine Kerouac with B.B. King improvising behind him instead of John Coltrane).
Common to all of Over the Rhine's works is a deep poetic ambition (explored lyrically by Leonard Cohen and Neil Young and in prose by Dillard), but the songs never seem overwrought, a danger when your creative inspirations are that daunting. The dreamy 50s-era pop of "Anyway" is perfectly suited to the resigned melancholy of its title ("Any recourse now/Well it's much too late/Anyway"). "Moth" is an impassioned meditation on unfulfilled desire: "There's no savior hanging on this cross/It isn't suffering we fear but loss/This is closer than I ever came/Just a burning moth without a flame/It's an offer that you can't refuse/It's a trophy you'll want to lose/But you'll do anything/Anything/You're a burning moth without a flame." The imagery sounds like it could have been taken from one of Catherine of Siena's erotic/mystical texts (it also recalls a passage from Dillard, whom the band cites as an influence). And then there's "Latter Days," the opening track of Good Dog Bad Dog. I defy anyone with at least a scrap of human feeling to remain unmoved by it.
The standout feature of the music is the compelling presence of Bergquist. If her life were subject to the cosmic laws of Greek mythology, a jealous goddess would smite her with an awful curse to prove that so many gifts bestowed on one mortal cannot go unpunished. Critics have compared her to Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, Sarah McLachlan and Margo Timmins. That seems about right?keeping in mind that all their talents are combined in one person. McLachlan and Timmins, however, sometimes make music with a reach that exceeds their grasp. They sing bigger than their ideas. Over the Rhine's virtue is that the extravagance of Bergquist's voice is matched by their poetic gift.
The first volume of a proposed three-disc project, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump is a bit more consistent than Stakes, although it never reaches the same heights. The cover art shows the group with their skeletons exposed, and the music matches it with minimal synth funk and few samples. Occasionally this tactic works, as on "Oooh," the second-best hands-in-the-air anthem of the summer (after "[Hot Shit] Country Grammar," stoopid!). But elsewhere, they're forced to rely on simplistic, overly slick r&b choruses?odd, coming from the group that coined the phrase "rhythm and bullshit." It's not much of a mosaic, and doesn't have much thump, either.
With the music so spare, the rhymes take front and center, and that's a mixed bag, too. The loose, freestyle approach definitely packs a punch, but it also means you get raps about pizza as a metaphor for romance. They fare better with macho hubris, and when they throw themselves into the brawl headfirst?even if it's just to duck?the record comes furiously to life. "My Writes" provides more bite in its virtuoso boasts than a whole career of DMX barks, and yet still stops to wonder, "What'cha know about an off night?" And the record finishes with the one-two wallop of the less-than-macho survival guide "The Art of Getting Jumped" and the Freddie Foxxx guest shot, "U Don't Wanna B.D.S." (stands for "Bust Dat Shit"). The latter is basically a musical version of "Scared Straight," with Freddie terrifying the kiddies into righteousness, but what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for with true jumpiness.
The most telling tracks on the disc, however, are the "Ghost Weed" skits, where rappers literally transform into their favorite celebrity MCs after a puff of the stuff. It's a witty extension of a common De La theme: hiphop commodification as both an oppressive and liberating force. Unfortunately, as De La Soul react to that commodification by paring down affectation and eliminating redundancy, they get further away from what made them so special in the first place.
Despite this Berlin-based punk anarchist trio's tag as postjungle speed-hatecore, and the comparisons made between them and the Prodigy, Ministry and any other full-on electro-techno outfit, the band they most recall are Britain's proto-riot grrrls, Huggy Bear. They have the same passion, male-female dynamics, hatred for societal restraints and determination to mess around with accepted musical recording techniques and structures. (They go loud-soft-loud-YELL-YELL-soft-loud-distort an awful lot.) They are political beasts. And they are not going to let off the steam for one fucking moment.
A vocoder distorts every human dynamic into a flanging robot voice; the beats are a jumble of hostility and anger; German-Japanese noise goddess Nic Endo screams momentarily like it's long past the end of the world before the sheer volume of noise takes over. This is music played on Marshalls with the volume permanently stuck on 11. This is the sound of a riot translated to vinyl. After 26 minutes and 38 seconds, there is silence. And that silence is deafening.
Bubbly Velvets'-third-album guitar stylings usually figure somewhere in Knox's repertoire, in this case on "When I Have Left This Mortal Coil." One trait he rips from the VU is the slow buildup using staccato strum-patterns, like climbing stairsteps?like in"Everyone's Cool," for instance. But for all the stairsteps Knox has climbed, real or metaphoric, he's fallen down a few, too, which explains his humanitarian-drunken yob persona.
Knox harkens back to the days of vaudeville, where a performer was expected to be able to use a variety of routines to keep the show going. I've seen him live and he's one of the most gracious performers you're likely to catch in a dingy rock club. If it were 100 years ago you'd be seeing him under the big top with the pungent smell of elephant dung as an accompaniment.
Knox has two basic vocal techniques, not bad considering that most people don't even have one. The first is a sweet falsetto, which he saves for his more compassionate moments (and his middle name is Compassion), like when he's professing his love for his mainstay Barbara on the Mellotron-laden "Laughter." The other is the cockney one, which he saves for his more ribald moments, like stories told for ages in taverns all over New Zealand. In "Ghost" he goes into Iggy's "Lust for Life" riff.
Knox is a musical architect whose aptitude for juxtaposing different elements for totally utilitarian purposes makes one think he could've just as easily been building thatched roofs in the barrios of New Zealand?a regular Joe who might've even carried a lunchbox (though I bet he would have a bottle of Muscatel hidden in there).
Joe S. Harrington
On the relatively optimistic "Love Forever," the beat starts racing away in excitement as Daniel sings, "I haven't given up, it's been 15 years," before he finishes the verse with, "Our love is dead, our love is dead." The song halts around him, uncertain of where the future might take it. "We were so happy together/We always thought love was forever," he adds in another lull. This theme of love and life and meaning being dead is repeated across the 15 tracks with an alarming frequency, particularly on the self-explanatory "Funeral Girl" and "I Lose." You could call this the blues, but where does art begin and life end? On songs like the piano-drenched "Wedding Ring Bells Blues," the music is so lacking in artifice and guile the listener feels like the worst voyeur imaginable. So this is what it's like to feel pain, huh? Jesus.
In 1998-'99, I saw Daniel Johnston play live twice in Portland, OR, and once when I was shamefully drunk and trying to fight rubberneckers in Seattle, WA. I was introduced to him and his father: a couple of girls I'd just met got him to draw a picture for me. At no point during those nights was I convinced that Johnston had any grasp on the outside world, even when he was wrenching my heart out with cover versions of the Beatles' "What Goes On" and McCartney's "Live and Let Die." His band was atrocious the second night, but the third they played the sweetest, most angelic music?sort of like on Rejected Unknown, except Johnston clearly doesn't even enjoy writing songs anymore. Maybe he never did.
Around 1993, Johnston's ex-manager stayed at my house and reared up like a jackal when a knife was laid on the table. In 1991, I swapped a Daniel Johnston "Hi, How Are You" t-shirt with Kurt Cobain under the strictest instructions that he was to wear it in photo shoots. In 1990, Johnston's onetime ally, the gentle Jad Fair, also stayed at my house and left a hand-crafted paper cut behind the following morning as way of payment. I met Johnston's French A&R man at Atlantic: he was sweet and offered me any number of Daniel's drawings, plus a chance to interview him. I declined the second offer and accepted a couple of the first. Two days later, my hotel room in Chicago was broken into while I was present, comatose on the floor, and my bag containing the drawings stolen. I cried. The drawings were later recovered, the bag and remaining contents weren't. There's a song on Rejected Unknown called "Devinaire" in which Daniel calls himself a worthless bum who's had his share of chums. There's a game/song, called "Party," that almost makes sense of the mischievous ducks wandering around the sleeve. I'm sure Johnston loves Bill Anderson's guitar on this track; it's so playful and reminiscent of the White Album, even while Daniel is celebrating the "suicide rock 'n' roll" at the center of the song's theme. There's a song called "The Spook" that perhaps you may never want to hear because it's so sad and blues-ridden and basic and furthermore a bad ripoff of Lennon's self-indulgent rocker period. Chum Brian Beattie (from the Dead Milkmen) lends support anyhow, as he does virtually everywhere else.
Track 12, "Favourite Darling Girl": two minutes, 14 seconds of bottleneck blues perfection. I played this song 40 or 50 times during the couple of weeks I first heard it on a T/K sampler back in 1998. I have played it 10 or 11 times tonight. In any kind of world that made any kind of sense, this song would be number-one in our hearts all over. God bless you, Daniel Johnston. I hope you find love someday.