Depending on your point of view, The Trumpet Child may be the record Over the Rhine have finally allowed themselves to make, or perhaps should have made long before now. For a band defined by its aesthetics, more than likely it's the first one. It's as if they needed to get all that suffocating darkness into the open, in order to really enjoy themselves apart from the long night of entrenchment in OTR's sepia-toned universe of arty cool. The vein they mined for a decade and a half transformed itself into a hangman's noose -- albeit one of silk. In the end, it doesn't matter; The Trumpet Child will either liberate them from the devotional wilderness of their cult and bring them into the open or send them scurrying back there for cover. While The Trumpet Child is not drenched in the intense emotional imagery, ambivalence, and near pathos of their previous offerings, that doesn't mean those qualities are not here. They are, but less so. In fact, despite its careful, sparse mix and simple, spacy arrangements, this album amounts to a shout of joy in comparison to earlier offerings. Produced by Brad Jones and recorded in Nashville, the album's music is steeped in the other kind of Americana: not the gothic country one that gave listeners the Cowboy Junkies, Steve Earle, latter-day Emmylou Harris, or the imagined planes of Daniel Lanois' world, but the one that bred Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Randy Newman, Jack Teagarden, Rickie Lee Jones, Maria Muldaur, and Tom Waits.
There are horns (trumpets and valve trombones as well as saxophones), strings, electric and acoustic pianos and guitars, bass harmonicas, brushed drums, hand percussion, and upright bass. No real jazz or blues are here, but there is a kind of dimly lit gauzy theater version of them framed in the language of white, literate, neo-hipster speakeasy soul (think of Edith Wharton slumming it late in a downtown gin joint) that is inspired by cabaret singers from a bygone era, the desperate good-time mythology of old New Orleans' spirit, and a suave decadent intelligence that can crib imagery from Nina Simone and Waits in its own trademark way. The latter reference is a little too literal in "Don't Wait for Tom," Linford Detweiler's misguided sideways homage to the musical iconoclast that appropriates by imitation the man's percussion styles, broken carnival sounds, and willingness to delve into everything from Italian tarantella to tango, post-Beat Generation lingo, Joe Cuba Latin grooves, and the Delta blues. That's one of the two clunky moments here; the other is the closer, which immediately follows -- a trite, novelty, name-dropping song. Had they stopped after track nine, instead of tossing in these two throwaways, The Trumpet Child would have been a four-star recording. What were they thinking? That's the negative end, and since it is at the end, no problem.
As for the bright moments, there are plenty -- all nine preceding tracks. The beautiful horn intro and fills on "I Don't Wanna Waste Your Time," the set's opener, weaves together a provincial kind of Southern soul, early jazz, and an inelegant pop balladry almost worthy of Newman. Vocalist/lyricist Karin Bergquist has worked hard over the years to become a genuine song stylist instead of merely a frontperson. While she still borrows too much from Billie Holiday and other singers from the golden jazz era, she's close enough and talented enough to take your breath away at times -- this is one of them. The mutant Brechtian cabaret in "Trouble" has a genuine swing that combines a rather academic cha-cha with Italian Neapolitan night music, then it packs the entire mess into a sexy-sounding mix combined with "good girl gone bad" vocal campiness (Blossom Dearie meets Mae West perhaps?). Detweiler's piano playing has improved greatly over the years; it makes the whole tune shine without seams even in the knottier parts. Bergquist's performance is full of genuine sultry humor, if not eros. The easy bluesy stroll in "I'm on a Roll" pits Tony Paoletta's slide guitar as Bergquist's musical ally here; she's the voice, he's the body. Jones' upright bass, the skeletally played double kit drums and hand percussion, and Detweiler's anchoring acoustic guitar keep the whole thing just above the belt line. On "Nothing Is Innocent," early West Coast cool jazz meets Upper West Side New York cabaret circa 1940 (performed on a chamberlain, pedal steel, violin, brushed snare, nylon-string acoustic, and flute), with Bergquist's devastatingly poignant lyric inside all of it.
The title track recalls jazz too; its melody is all OTR, but the arrangement digs deeply into Stan Kenton's textural colors -- with Gil Evans' subtlety tempering them. The real surprise is that it all comes out as an old-school gospel hymn written in the 21st century. Bergquist's voice cuts loose, just for a moment, at the end of a couple of verses -- but too late; she reveals what's she's kept under wraps all these years. Nothing quite prepares the listener for "Let's Spend the Day in Bed." It begins innocently enough as a Norah Jones-ish pop ballad, but with instrumentation that includes Rhodes, B-3, electric guitars (one of them played by Matt Slocum), full drums, strings, and the electric Wurlitzer. It's a more complex yet utterly gorgeous song about love in the vernacular of everyday life in the rat race and the need to leave it all outside the bedroom door for a while. These are images used by everyone from Jerome Kern to Mose Allison to Hoagy Carmichael to Doc Pomus, but they are offered in such a sly yet honest way that it makes homespun paradise between two people sound possible -- if only for the day. In the break and the last half it changes up completely and gets downright funky, infectious, irresistible. (If anyone at the label has brains, they'll issue this as a single; it'll get inside programmers' heads and stay there. It will make people stop what they're doing and pay attention.) And it's here in the nine songs that The Trumpet Child reveals the evolution of OTR. Musically sophisticated -- if a little overly reverential to the styles they employ -- it flows, swoops, hovers, and glides inside the listener. It offers enough of the band's own identity for long-term fans to feel comfortable, and enough musical diversity, surprise, and genuine inspiration to attract new ones.