Review: Over the Rhine’s “Blood Oranges in the Snow” Brings Long Journeys, New Mercies

bloodorangesBlood Oranges in the Snow—the third Christmas collection from Over the Rhine—opens with a weary travelogue, weepy pedal steel and wistful vocal harmonies lending weight to the song’s hard-won hopefulness. “Just a little while longer,” Karin Bergquist promises, and you almost don’t need any additional words to dial into the song’s spirit—tired and a bit broken down, but hopeful just the same. (And yes, as Karin previously put it: “There is something to be said for tenacity.”)

The rustic vibe feels like a continuation of last year’s homespun Meet Me at the Edge of the World, and sure enough: Blood Oranges feels, at times, like the winter companion to that autumnal meditation on rural life. Some of the same names adorn this album’s credits, including several of the Joe Henry players (though not the man himself; the band self-produced, this go-around) and engineer Ryan Freeland. The plot is considerably thicker than this description might suggest, though, and the cast of players is deeper and broader; included also are Over the Rhine acolytes from way back, among them Ric Hordinski and Jack Henderson; for that matter, dynamite drummer Mickey Grimm is back for the first time since the Trumpet Child/Snow Angels era, and frequent partner-in-crime Kim Taylor contributes a song (as she did on The Long Surrender).

No Over the Rhine album that I can think of has so many callbacks to the band’s history; none are as reflective of what Over the Rhine is, not just as a band but as a community. It is a consolidating effort in many respects, though not a nostalgic one. The weight of the band’s history gives considerable heft and meaning to the nine new songs presented here: They are songs about roads that have been long and hard, but good, and travelled together. The point is proven sufficiently just by a scan through the Blood Oranges credits.

Most of the songs here were written by Linford Detweiler; Karin is co-credited on the final number, and there are also one song apiece from Henderson and Taylor, plus a cover of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make it Through December.” On paper this seems like a bit of a patchwork approach to the album, but actually the pieces all fit wonderfully together, the songs in dialogue with one another even as they all conjure different variations of the same vibe. Blood Oranges is, impressively, a very different beast than either of the band’s previous Christmas LPs, and is especially distinct from Snow Angels—just as warm and intimate, but tending toward introspection and melancholy where that album was playful, flirty, and jolly.

It feels as much like an Advent album as a record to spin on Christmas Day. It’s probably not unfair to call Blood Oranges an album about waiting; about toughing it out—the Snow Angels coda “We’re Gonna Pull Through” would’ve fit in just as well on this collection. It’s an album about expectation—the long, dark nights chronicled in these songs all looking forward to some act of grace and redemption, even when it goes unnamed, even when it’s as simple as holding on through another winter.

If that makes it sound like a sadder set than most Christmas albums, well, that may be true—though even “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” have their shadows and their scars, if you stop and really listen. It’s true enough that Blood Oranges is melancholy more than it’s jubilant, and its soul-searching is restless throughout “Another Christmas” and especially “My Father’s Body.” These are songs colored by regret and anxiety, haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past and present; by the time the Merle Haggard song rolls around—what with its painfully pragmatic tale of the everyday hardships that seem, so often, to be heaviest in December—it seems almost like it could capsize the album, but the way Karin sings it the song feels tough—as though the narrator is hopeful not by nature, but by stubborn choice and intent.

“Bethlehem,” written by and sung with Jack Henderson, locates the source of that hope more vividly; it’s a soulful and weary song, a dark night of the soul that nevertheless dares to dream of “a hope for all mankind”—the light of that simple phrase shining all the brighter in this pitch-black midwinter. “Snowbirds” could almost be its lighthearted companion piece; its titular characters dive into the water knowing full well that it’s icy cold; they seek love and companionship despite the long odds and the dark nights. The best song here is “Let it Fall,” a simple and powerful exhortation to leave anxieties and insecurities checked at the door.

The album ends not with Christmas Day but with the coming of a New Year, and the promise that “New mercy comes with every morning/ The unexpected with no warning.” It offers us this, too: “Just a bit of New Year’s cheer/ To say I’m glad you’re here.” By this point, of course, the feeling is mutual; in more ways than one Blood Oranges sounds like a moment of rest following a long haul filled with tough sledding; a warm fire on a cold night. Its every grace note, its every new mercy feels earned—for all of us, no matter the journeys we’ve been on.


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