It must be a horrible thing to be in the studio with Over the Rhine. You’d spend day after day for weeks on end helping this Cincinnati collective lay down tracks that you know will never see the light of day on a proper release. It’s not that the quality is lacking, but rather that this incredibly gifted group is simply too damn prolific for the rigid release schedules major labels prefer, which means stacks of quality material will quietly slide to the wayside without ever finding the audience it deserves.
Things aren’t as bad as they could be for Over the Rhine faithful, however. The band’s lengthy tenure in the independent world has given them enough leverage with their label that they’re able to fit the occasional independent release in between their “official” records, a fact put to good use with The Cutting Room Floor.
Available only from the band, The Cutting Room Floor is made up of cast-offs from the Films For Radio sessions and captures some of those tracks in a more intimate setting while also offering up some completely unheard tracks. For those out there keeping score, this is Over the Rhine’s third collection of b-sides and rarities, a ridiculous number that would mark sheer hubris in most other acts but one that represents an absolutely essential salvage operation here. On the three collections released so far, there are a grand total of two cuts that I would consider non-essential for fans of the band. Two. This is a band that simply does not write bad songs. Ever.
But enough of the fawning. What does the record sound like? Increasingly dominated by the husband/wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, Over the Rhine mine a compelling take on arty, country-tinged torch songs that has made fans of The Cowboy Junkies (of whom Karin and Linford are now touring members), Buddy and Julie Miller, and Lone Justice’s uber-session drummer Don Heffington, all of whom turn up on Over the Rhine records. Though the line dividing their roles is not a particularly clear one, the short version is that Bergquist gives voice to Detweiler’s lyrics, and both are absolute masters of their craft.
Bergquist has a luscious, lazy drawl and Detweiler is simply one of the most articulate, compelling writers going. As for it’s particular place in the Over the Rhine canon, most of the cuts here seem to mark the transition period from the raw, home-recorded Good Dog Bad Dog to the glimmer and polish of Films For Radio. The demo versions of “I Radio Heaven,” “Toledo,” and “Fairport Diary” push these tracks in whole new directions that should be more familiar to fans of the band’s live show. The inclusion of a live rendition of Neil Young’s “Helpless” (this would be where Julie and Buddy Miller turn up) makes me wish I’d been able to catch their most recent tour.
Now here’s a scary thought: not only is b-sides disc number three better than most acts’ “proper” releases but I know of at least one more full set of high quality recordings still floating around out there unreleased. Over the Rhine are releasing these discs as fast as they possibly can and they’re still only scratching the surface.
Written by Chris Brown.