Blending elements of country, jazz, soul, swing and torch song, The Trumpet Child, the umpteenth album by Ohio natives Over The Rhine, plays out like a primer to American roots music. Centred around the wonderfully named husband-and-wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, the band have gone through several line-up changes in the sixteen years that they’ve been recording. This time around, however, the central duo have surrounded themselves with a piano-and-brass ensemble whose contributions give many of the songs a delightfully woozy, loose, late-night barroom ambience. The result is an appealing album that, though firmly rooted in tradition, feels thoroughly fresh and contemporary.
Mixing some pleasingly surrealistic imagery with more traditional lyrical approaches, the eleven songs are well served by Bergquist’s compelling vocal style, a luxuriant croon that sometimes suggests a homelier Billie Holliday mated with a less abrasive Lucinda Williams. The haunting, jazzy title track, the propulsive ‘Entertaining Thoughts’, the rollicking Tom Waits homage ‘Don’t Wait For Tom’ and the delicious domestic reverie ‘Let’s Spend The Day In Bed’ are among the highlights of the set, but it’s the brilliant ‘If A Song Could Be President’ that arguably emerges as the standout. The track is a wry but heartfelt speculation on the consequences for America if its media and politicians were replaced by its music. Paying affectionate lyrical homage to Steve Earle, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, John Prine and Neil Young (“Even though he came from Canada”), the song is at once a subtle critique of “Where our country went wrong” and a proud, loving celebration of the America’s rich cultural heritage. The lyric “Pass it around on an MP3″ couldn’t be more appropriate; this is the kind of track you instantly want to share with everyone you know, one that already sounds like a classic.
At its least good, The Trumpet Child wears its influences a little too heavily, sometimes allowing its penchant for homage to slip into pastiche. But taken as a stylish synthesis of a range of music traditions, the album is a very enjoyable experience. “I don’t want to waste your time with music you don’t need,” Bergquist sings, and, for the most part, Over The Rhine make good on that statement.
[Great Speckled Dog; November 12, 2007]