Sunday, March 31, 2024

CD Odyssey Disc 1723: Over the Rhine

The long weekend continues to treat me well, and today promises to be a lazy one, featuring reading, watching the men’s final of the Miami Open (sorry, March Madness devotees, it is tennis season for me), and music appreciation. On that latter item, I was up early to give this next album a third and decisive listen.

Disc 1723 is…Good Dog Bad Dog

Artist: Over the Rhine

Year of Release: 1996

What’s up with the Cover?  The band looking fine in their oversized clothes (don’t judge them, it was the style at the time).

Also featured are two dogs, presumably one good, one bad. I think if I were a dog, I would be a very bad dog. On the other hand, I’d be a very good cat.

How I Came To Know It: Sheila’s coworker Carol is a huge fan of this band and very generously lent Sheila her Over the Rhine collection.

Turns out this was a lot of Over the Rhine. I was trepidatious at first. If I didn’t like this band, was I really going to listen to 10 albums worth of it? Rather than overthink it we dove in at the beginning to see how it would go. As it happens, it went very well indeed. I now have two Over the Rhine albums and a host of others on my “to get” list. Thanks for the great musical discovery, Carol!

How It Stacks Up: I found a used copy of this record in my local record store and a second album arrived by Amazon this morning (yes, weirdly it was the same band). Even though this gives me two records, the second one just arrived, and I will withhold judgment at this time.

Rating: 2 stars but almost 3

While I am uncharacteristically withholding judgment, I will generally note that in my deep dive through Over the Rhine, they are like a fine wine that improves with age. Their early records don’t hold me the same way. Part of this is that thick, layered nineties production (a problem of the era, not specific to Over the Rhine) and the other part is them still exploring what they want to sound like generating a lack of cohesion at times.

“Good Dog, Bad Dog” is the band’s fourth record, and early enough to have these challenges. I still liked it enough to buy it, but I’ll admit that it left me feeling wistful for some of their later records.

Things start strong. The opening lyric of “Latter Days” is delightful and artistically alluring:

“What a beautiful piece of heartache
This has all turned out to be.”

Consider me intrigued, and from here the song progresses at a measured, majestic pace, fueled by piano and the great gift that is Karin Bergquist’s vocals. Bergquist has pure pop in her tone, channeled through a folk sensibility. Her vocals are like hearing elfin music in the deep woods, warm and ethereal. She has a natural talent for phrasing that sits down with the piano riff on “Latter Days” to create a lovely musical conversation.

My favourite song on the record, “Poughkeepsie,” creates a similar experience, with stately guitar strumming replacing piano, and the same great balance of sound. “Poughkeepsie” has the rising power of a devotional; not surprising for a song about riding on the backs of angels. I don’t ride on the backs of angels myself, but listening to Bergquist’s heartfelt delivery, it is easy to feel inspired.

Unfortunately, the record still has a lot of exploration of different sounds that do not work well. “Faithfully Dangerous” sounds a lot like Sade. I do not like Sade. “A Gospel Number” tries to mix gospel vibes with an overly smooth mid-nineties lounge sound that was tiresome in the day and has not aged well. “Jack’s Valentine” features a spoken word delivery that feels ironically detached, a poor match with a record that is best when plumbing the emotional depths.

At almost 60 minutes of music, some of the songs are on the longish side. In these moments the band is trying to lay down a vibe with a slow roll of repetition through the tune’s elements. No complaints with delivery – the musicianship is top-notch – but I’d been at the studio board I would have encouraged them to call it a couple bars early.

On balance, I found this record featured some good dogs, but it also had a few bad ones, and not enough cats to fill the gaps. I liked it, and it whetted my appetite to bring more of their records into the collection, but it is not my favourite Over the Rhine album.

Best tracks: Latter Days, Etcetera Whatever, Poughkeepsie, Go Down Easy

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