Somehow or other, my friend Jenny convinced me to join her album club. This is really a tribute to her, and my fondness for her, because I’ve had some bad experiences with clubs. The office book club, for instance, has had me on a steady diet of Thackeray, way-too-serious nonfiction, and Thomas Pynchon for, oh, about 10 years now. I yearn for a little light reading, you know? Would it really hurt the group to—hey, just once in awhile—pick a little mystery novel? Or to read something about love? Apparently so.
I’ve actually been threatening to leave the book club. And when the Pynchon-lovers ask why, I just say something about being middle-aged. About time being short. About wanting to spend my limited free time reading what I want to read.
So, erm, maybe it’s not a good sign that I’m just not too wild about the album club’s initial selection, Over the Rhine‘s The Trumpet Child. The band—centered around a husband and wife—is from southern Ohio, and it’s apparently even named after a Cincinnati neighborhood. I took that as a good sign. After all, I’m drawn to music that’s rootsy, to music that’s marked by regionalism of some sort or other. Indeed, Americana music is one of my favorite genres. And my friends in the club were toying with the Americana label as a possible way of describing Over the Rhine’s music.
To my ear, though, this is not an Americana band. And I don’t mean that as criticism. Not really, anyway. There is just very little about this band that draws from or speaks to any sort of American roots music. Karin Bergquist’s vocals, for instance, are completely untraceable to any region. She could be from Cincinnati or Chicago or Tacoma or San Mateo. For that matter, she could be from Brussels or Munich. She has a sort of bland, mildly jazz-y vocal delivery—something on the order of what you’d expect from a contemporary Christian artist who’d suddenly forsaken Jesus for Ella. Likewise, the vibe provided by pianist/guitarist Linford Detweiler is more Suburban Strip Mall™ than Dusty Honky Tonk™.
Again, that Over the Rhine isn’t an Americana band is not criticism. But this is. Even on its own terms, the music just isn’t very compelling. The songs are banal, and Bergquist adds almost nothing in the way of interpretation. She sings well but not interestingly. If you were at a jazz club or a hotel bar, with a gin-and-tonic in one hand and your beau in the other, you’d have a pleasant enough time listening to songs like “Trouble,” “Entertaining Thoughts,” and the title track. But you wouldn’t remember the songs later. Later, you’d remember the times when (as on “I’m on a Roll,” “Who’ I Kiddin’ but Me,” and “If a Song Could Be President”) Bergquist’s delivery became too precious—almost downright twee.
For me—and know this: I’m a sucker for songs about love and desperation—what’s most unforgivable is to sing a song called “Desperate for Love” in a way that suggests neither love nor desperation. And that’s true whether the singer works in jazz, Americana, or Hotel Bar Generic™.
My favorite song on the album is actually “Don’t Wait for Tom,” a song featuring Detweiler’s mildly quirky vocals. The song is insubstantial, but Detweiler—a poor man’s Tom Waits—at least tried to have fun with it.
On a scale of 10, I’d give The Trumpet Child a three.
P.S. Despite this review, I’m looking forward to the album club’s February selection. But wait—is there a musical equivalent of a Thomas Pynchon novel?