A Goth’s Guide to Over the Rhine

Written By Leanna Renee Hieber

Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright, ghost tour guide and an award-winning author of gaslamp fantasy novels. Featured in film and television on shows like Mysteries at the Museum and Beyond the Unknown, discussing Victorian Spiritualism, she is a guide for NYC’s Boroughs of the Dead and lectures nationwide on Gothic themes, 19th Century women’s history, Spiritualism and the Paranormal.

When I last saw Over the Rhine in concert, live in New York City, founding member Linford Detweiler said, in his endearing, self-effacing way, that a recent review of their latest album, Love and Revelation, went something like: “Over the Rhine writes expansive songs about God, love, and death.” And I thought: that’s goth as hell.

Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist are the core of Over the Rhine, a band titled after the 19th century name for the Cincinnati, Ohio neighborhood that drew German immigrants to the riverside; the winding bends of the Ohio having become their new Rhine. The area was Linford and Karin’s home during the band’s founding, and they’ve shared their lives and their love (nearly thirty-years married) with us, their listeners, all while evoking nearly every genre of music across their albums. While their Wikipedia page notes them as a Folk band, I’ve noticed each album has different genres noted in metadata, from folk to pop, blues to R&B to country. Karin’s soul-stirring voice, lyrics and guitarwork remains one anchor of the band, with Linford’s piano, lyrics, harmonies and bass working as the balancing baseline. Okay, so they’ve never been labeled “goth” but Karin is nearly always in black on stage and they’re ready to rip your heart out with a melody and stitch it back together with lyrics full of dark, depressive turns inching towards esoteric joy, so they’re one of us.

I (a goth in my mid-forties) was first exposed to Over the Rhine in 1996 on a deeply emotional day. I’d just closed a huge, semi-professional theatrical production in which I played the lead. At the cast party, a fellow performer said to our melancholy lot: “I need to play you something. Dunno if it will help, but you just need to hear it.” She played us a song about a dead girl and her guardian angel. If that’s not a goth premise… The song was “Mary’s Waltz” and I was done for. I don’t remember anything else about that day except that I was sitting in the dark at the top of a seemingly endless staircase in a stranger’s house when this song crept up the stairs on a lilting piano intro, tucked into my bones with refrains about dancing with angels, and never let go. That’s what Over the Rhine does as classic singer/songwriters; they flit in, build a nest inside you and a melancholy bluebird keeps singing fiercely clever songs (about God, love and death). I’ve been a fan over half my life now and to say they’ve been a major part of the soundtrack would be an understatement. They’ve sung in and out of every pain and celebration, every extreme of living and feeling. They get what every goth band, artist, writer, aesthetic and trope grasps: struggle through brutal darkness but keep fighting towards something meaningful, otherwise what’s the point?

A Guided (Selected) Discographic Tour:

While they’ve music that predates their early (and deservedly well-loved) Good Dog Bad Dog album, any goth unfamiliar with their work should begin with Good Dog Bad Dog, because goths embrace gorgeously sad piano as our own, we imprint on that stuff early. Off to the moody races. This album is dreamy; full of shadows and yearning so sharp it could slice skin. The opening line of the lulling first track, “Latter Days,” sums up a great deal of their work: “What a beautiful piece of heartache this has all turned out to be.” Later in the album, “Poughkeepsie” is there to hold you back from a ledge. This song about casting worries to the sky rather than casting oneself down to the river has saved some lives, I can say with personal certainty. Goths don’t take talk of suicide lightly and neither does this band.

If you visited Starbucks in 2005-6, you might remember they used to have those little paper cards with music downloads by the cash register? You might have received a code from Over the Rhine’s Films for Radio album. When I first heard the rich, luminous “The World Can Wait” playing in the Times Square Starbucks where I was a barista at the time, I cheered like a fan at sport-ball game. A sophisticated, sensual album with a bright red cover and a sweeping interiority. This marked a significant expansion in Over the Rhine’s distribution and popularity. Their exceedingly sexy track “The Body is a Stairway of Skin” (goth-as-hell title) earned the album that prestigious black and white Explicit Label!

Tucked into the middle of their work, Linford Detweiler released 3 sauntering, melancholy and contemplative piano-only albums that were recorded in their 19th century Victorian home at the time, a building they called The Grey Ghost.

Over the Rhine signed with a big record label and embarked on the ambitious Ohio, a 2-disc album honoring their (and my) home state. It’s open, soaring, mournful and complicated. It flirts with country and steel guitar. It’s plaintive. It’s full of difficult (sometimes toxic) relationships. It’s seeing Jesus in a Bloody Mary (lyrically, literally). And it becomes clear that the wrestling of this album brought them, as a band and a couple, to a breaking point. It’s a very goth thing to nearly crash and burn in an existential crisis.

They left it all behind and recorded Drunkard’s Prayer, in their home, drinking a bottle of wine and hashing life out every night until something had rebuilt itself, battle-weary, bruised but stronger. On an independent label. Together at the edges of nearly coming apart. I’m not grasping here, this is all in the liner notes; an intimate glimpse behind the curtain they trusted their big-hearted listeners enough to see. It’s an extremely intimate album of love songs fighting the good fight. Sweet, brutal, sensual, frustrated. Goths don’t like to talk only one way about love, show us the whole spectrum. This album does that.

With The Trumpet Child, the band (along with talented “band of sweetheart” studio musicians) swings effortlessly into straight blues, R&B, classic torch songs and some radical theology. I finally gathered up the courage to meet Linford and Karin at a performance at Miami University when they were debuting Love and Revelation. I nervously told both of them that when anyone asked me about my faith or theology I replied “The Trumpet Child.” This radical view of a loving, gritty, sensuous musical second-coming is my answer to religion, if I have to pick something. If Gary Numan can argue with God for entire albums (and I love every one), Linford and Karin can have frank, lived-in conversations with a divinity that’s frayed at the edges.

The Long Surrender feels like another dream again, it circles back to some of the shadowy moods of Good Dog Bad Dog but with wider subject matter, from the sheer emotional exhaustion of “The Laugh of Recognition” to silliness in “Only God Can Save Us Now.” (Goths shouldn’t take themselves too seriously).

Several magnificent holiday albums dot the varied landscape. Carols, secular favorites, original songs, the works. If the prosaic “Snow Angel” from Snow Angel, about losing a lover to a foreign war doesn’t make your eyes well with tears, I worry for you. Love and death, baby.

Meet me at the Edge of the World is another 2-disc album, a celebratory musical homecoming with distinct folk influences. Two rambling hearts fully embrace that their home, spirit and raison d’etre is Nowhere Farm. Out of Cincinnati and into the Southern Ohio wilds, the band has renovated a 19th century barn as a performance venue. We can invoke a touch of Southern Gothic here, sure its Ohio but it’s also real close to Kentucky. I grew up in the same parts of rural Ohio and I promise you a ghost story floats around every bend in the road.

So here we are back at Love and Revelation. What keeps striking me is the textured compositions and the harmonies. “Let You Down” had my whole family in tears from the first stanza; we needed this song about love and loss when we’d just lost a family member ourselves. Coming back to theology, if you need to believe in something, believe in “May God Love You Like You’ve Never Been Loved.” The band has noted that this album begins with the words “I cried.” Grappling with grief permeates the album. But as always, you don’t stay lost with this band. You’ll be found. As my favorite darkwave/electronica band VNV Nation encourages, “can you see the light?”

I don’t know where Over the Rhine is going next but I’ll be along for the journey back to Ohio or out somewhere on the road, now that I’m a New Yorker. Karin and Linford are leaders and musical shepherds too, running songwriting camps for all ages and hosting the vibrant Nowhere Else festival at Nowhere Farm. Forging new, hard-fought paths of creativity; broken angels for a bleeding world.

If there was ever a band that managed to touch down on every aspect of the human experience, emotionally, physically, psychically, carnally, politically, spiritually, across more genres than I can easily name, it’s these folks. They somehow make the grueling, punishing, unforgiving viscera of living into something transformative and beautiful, without acting like it wasn’t bloody along the way. Reminding us all there’s been a cost to beauty; that “if grief is love without a place to go, well then I’ve been there, you’re not alone…” And if I do say so myself, that’s goth as hell.