"It's a collection of songs that required some extra real estate," Linford Detweiler says of Over the Rhine's Meet Me At The Edge Of The World, the latest product of his prolific two-decade musical collaboration with longtime partner Karin Bergquist.
Indeed, the new two-CD set, recorded with producer Joe Henry and released on the band's own Great Speckled Dog label, marks something of a landmark in Over the Rhine's large and remarkably accomplished body of work, exploring some challenging new musical territory while featuring some of the duo's most compelling songs and performances to date.
The double album's 19 songs—18 original compositions plus a memorable reading of The Band's classic "It Makes No Difference"—are both introspective and expansive, embodying the same mix of lyrical eloquence, emotional nuance and melodic soulfulness that have already won Bergquist (vocals, acoustic guitar, tenor guitar) and Detweiler (vocals, acoustic guitar, keyboards) a passionate fan base and considerable critical acclaim.
Paste has praised Over the Rhine's "lovely, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting musical mosaic," while USA Today made note of the group's "mature, graceful and sad songs (and) intimate, soulful arrangements," which "showcase Bergquist's achingly beautiful voice." Newsday described the music as "aggressively beautiful, like those '60s protesters who confronted soldiers with flowers."
"There may be no more soothing voice in music than Karin Bergquist's," observed Entertainment Weekly. "She could be interpreting jazz standards, but fortunately she applies that balm to her and husband Linford Detweiler's beautifully languid originals, which invoke hard times and celebrate the survival of the least fit."
Meet Me At The Edge Of The World's blend of confident songcraft and creative restlessness is apparent on such vividly expressive new songs as "Meet Me at the Edge of the World," "Sacred Ground," "All Of It Was Music," "Favorite Time of Light," "Wildflower Bouquet" and the haunting "Don't Let The Bastards Get You Down," which features guest vocalist Aimee Mann.
The songs that comprise Meet Me At The Edge Of The World were largely inspired by the atmosphere of the couple's rural Ohio home of the past eight years: a ramshackle farmhouse built in 1833, amidst the rolling, tree-lined fields of rural Highland County.
"These songs all grew loosely out of the soil we live on," Detweiler explains. "We had always dreamed of having a piece of unpaved earth which would serve as our home base, just like many other American artists or writers that are immediately associated with a specific geographical place. We call our place Nowhere Farm: nowhere, or now here, depending on how you look at it."
"We realized when we moved out here that we didn't know the names of much of anything," Bergquist notes. "We began to learn, and once we had, the names of the trees and the weeds and the birds began slipping into our songs. When Linford's father, a birder all of his life, first saw the farm, he encouraged us to 'leave the edges wild.' That became an important metaphor for us on a number of different levels, and the line appears on this record in several places."
While the duo drew artistic inspiration from their home environment, they received financial support from their fans in bringing Meet Me At The Edge Of The World to fruition. Rather than use a conventional third-party crowd-funding site like Kickstarter, they appealed directly to their fans, via their website, for help in financing the recording. The fans responded enthusiastically, showing their support with contributions of between $15 (a simple pre-order with bonus tracks) and $5000 (for a private concert, and executive producer credit etc) in order to make the ambitious project a reality.
"It's actually divided into two short records, 35 minutes each, two distinct chapters," Bergquist explains. "A decade ago, we found ourselves releasing a double album called OHIO that became an important project for us and our audience. In neither case were we completely aware we were making a double album while we were making it. It had to be revealed."
Meet Me At The Edge Of The World marks Over the Rhine's second collaboration (following 2011's The Long Surrender) with Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry, an iconoclastic singer-songwriter in his own right whose production resume also includes acclaimed albums with the likes of Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke, Bonnie Raitt, Allen Toussaint and Loudon Wainwright III.
"The records that Joe's been involved with all have a unique, funky, organic vibe. There's something mysterious going on that is hard to explain. But they tend to tug at the soul," Detweiler says.
Bergquist, Detweiler and Henry gathered a stellar musical cast that included drummer Jay Bellerose, guitarist/pedal steel player Eric Heywood, bassist Jennifer Condos, keyboardist Patrick Warren (Disc One) and guitarist Mark Goldenberg (Disc Two) plus a few notable guests (David Piltch, Van Dyke Parks and Aimee Mann) and cut all 19 of Meet Me At The Edge Of The World's songs in six days.
"It was all about capturing what was happening in the room," says Bergquist. "Everything on this record is recorded live, so you're hearing the sound of a band leaning in and conjuring something in real time."
Meet Me At The Edge Of The World also showcases the developing vocal chemistry that's become an increasingly prominent element of Over the Rhine's performances, as featured on such new numbers as "All Over Ohio" and "Earthbound Love Song."
"In the past, I've always been gun shy about singing, and would actually have a fair bit of physical pain whenever I tried to sing," Detweiler admits. "But after years of working together, Karin gently encouraged me to try singing through the pain to see if there was anything on the other side, and I think I finally learned how to relax. This is the first record where you can really hear us singing together. It feels a little bit like starting a new band."
Native Ohioans Detweiler and Bergquist launched Over the Rhine as a quartet in the spring of 1989, naming the ensemble after the historic, bohemian Cincinnati neighborhood Over-the-Rhine, where they lived and first wrote and recorded together. Their early demos and performances quickly struck a chord with listeners, and they already had a solid local following by the time they launched their recording career with a pair of well-received independently-released albums, Till We Have Faces (1991) and Patience (1992).
Over the next two decades, Over the Rhine continued to build a musically and emotionally potent catalogue, encompassing the studio albums Eve (1994), Good Dog Bad Dog (1996), Films For Radio (2001), Ohio (2003), Drunkard's Prayer (2005), The Trumpet Child (2007) and The Long Surrender (2011), the holiday-themed The Darkest Night of the Year (1996) and Snow Angels (2006), the live Changes Come (2004), and a series of limited-edition CDs featuring live, rare and unreleased material.
The fierce independent streak that has fueled Over the Rhine from the start asserted itself when Bergquist and Detweiler decided to release 2007's The Trumpet Child on their own Great Speckled Dog label (named after the couple's Great Dane, Elroy). The Long Surrender marked the band's first venture into fan-funded recording.
"We are blessed with an incredibly devoted audience who've assured us that they have invited our music into many of the significant milestones a human can experience," Detweiler states, adding, "People have told us that they fell in love, or walked down the aisle, or conceived, or went off to war, or buried loved ones, or gave birth to our music. And so forth. At the end of the day, what more can a songwriter ask for?"
Meet Me At The Edge Of The World's effortlessly engaging, timelessly resonant songs more than justify such loyalty, once again validating Over the Rhine's enduring musical mission.
"We see our catalog as our life's work," Bergquist concludes. "It's imperfect and broken, but we've also come to see our records as strangely beautiful and valid in their own way—much like life itself."