Beyond Melancholy

Cincinnati band Over the Rhine offers a moody cabaret of styles

Over the Rhine is the kind of band you'd expect to find in an old vaudeville house like the Bijou; it's late-night music with piano and bass and interesting lyrics, introspective, melancholy, the equivalent of a good smoke.

Though steeped in the rock 'n' roll tradition, Over the Rhine—named for the rough-edged German neighborhood in Cincinnati—is now doing something different. Those who call them "folk" or "Americana" are grasping at straws.

The group's latest album, Trumpet Child, released on their own label, Great Speckled Dog, holds some gospel swing, some country, some cool jazz, a little samba-like rhythm, and "Nothing Is Innocent," which, except for the English lyrics, sounds like something from the soundtrack of a Nouvelle Vague film of the early '60s. Karin Bergquist's sultry voice can remind you of Norah Jones, but only if you can imagine Norah Jones a little jazzed and flirting with, in turns, Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams, and Amy Winehouse.

Their show at the Bijou will be largely devoted to Trumpet Child—"but we have a fairly deep catalog," guitarist/pianist Linford Detweiler says—and promises some older surprises. The stage band is smaller than the album band, which includes Nashville session musicians on cellos and horns. We'll hear multi-instrumentalists Detweiler and Bergquist, plus stand-up bassist Jacob Bradley and percussionist Mickey Grimm, who also appears on the album. They've played Knoxville a few times before, if never quite as prominently as this week—Detweiler remembers a show or two at Blue Cats, once with the Cowboy Junkies. Most recently, they opened for Ani Difranco's last show at the Bijou. "It was gorgeous," Detweiler says. "Some stages just sort of wrap themselves around you. It's a good house."

Detweiler says they wanted to reach back to the "pre-rock ‘n' roll era of American music, to the Golden Age of songwriting: Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, and their playful approach to lyrics."

You may hear it in lines like, "If you want to make some trouble/Better make it good/Your sexy cocktail-hour stubble/Is doing what it should."

In their previous work, Detweiler says, "Karin had joked that we had cornered the market on melancholy." This time, "We tried to bottle some joy."

There's still plenty of melancholy, for those who need it. It's in the minor-chord melodies, even when the lyrics sound plausibly cheerful. Another influence is apparent in some of their lyrics, more of a beat-poetry motif which is nowhere more than in the album's biggest departure, "Don't Wait For Tom." Detweiler's only turn as a lead vocalist is an unabashed impression of Tom Waits, who might respect a couplet like, "He takes a bow and tips his fedora/Shouts like he's gonna save Sodom and Gomorrah." Detweiler wrote it, he admits, while "basking in the afterglow" of a Waits show in Louisville.

The Cincinnati-based band, at its core, is Detweiler and Bergquist, who happen, perhaps inevitably for a songwriting couple devoted to touring with torchy lyrics, to be personally involved. Married, in fact, for more than a decade.

It might seem a challenge for songwriters to be married, especially when they perform their own songs—being that so many successful songs are about the unattainable woman, or the man who got away. "There are times when it can work well," says Detweiler. "I wouldn't necessarily recommend it generally. It has its challenges." The two met at Malone College, a small Quaker school in Canton, Ohio, where they were studying music.

"I worried that we would lose our objectivity if we merged households," he says. "That hasn't happened. She can still tell me something I'm doing is not my best work."

They work separately, then collaborate. "I get called up to work on lyrics," he says. "Karin has melodic ideas, and maybe a good one-liner." It seems to work; the duo recently made the cut for Paste magazine's "100 Best Living Songwriters."

In this era of geographical identity, Detweiler, who's originally from northeastern Ohio, likes to think of Over the Rhine as a Midwestern band. What does it mean? "Maybe the main thing for us is I think of the Midwest as a melting pot, where a lot of different flavors get stirred together." The record, and their current act, is certainly that. "We sometimes need to give ourselves a rough elbow and try different things."