If the typical glut of Christmas songs that flood the radio this time of year are to be believed, there are only two states of being during the holiday season; rapturously swept up in religious faith or possessed of a technicolor, almost manic glee that is as artificial as an aluminum tree with plastic tinsel. The truth for most people is that Christmas is a bottle of mixed emotions. Expressions of blessing mingled with a gnawing about about one’s worthiness of that blessing, the joy of seeing extended family with the sadness of those now gone, a desire to find joy and peace in a world full of angry Black Friday shoppers. While a few songwriters, Hayes Carll with “Grateful for Christmas” most recently, have successfully brought balance to the holidays, very few have ventured to dedicate a whole album to it. Enter Over the Rhine with their new album “Blood Oranges in the Snow.”
Dubbing their latest work “Reality Christmas,” the husband and wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have crafted an album that probably strikes closer to home for most people than “Frosty the Snowman” ever did. On the album’s standout opening title track, Over the Rhine do what they do best, paint beautiful canvases of words and music. Detweiler’s lyrics focus on the small family traditions that make every holiday home unique rather than big celebrations or worn out holidays tropes. Bergquist’s vocals are thick and throaty and possessed of a touch of melancholy that wraps this song up with a bow. It’s by far the most hopeful song on the album, and it’s a nice counterweight for what’s to come.
There aren’t a lot of purely Christmas songs on “Blood Oranges in the Snow”, but they’re some of the best, and darkest, tracks of the lot. Detweiler takes a rare solo lead vocal on “Another Christmas” and it’s a song that wouldn’t have worked without that choice. Stacked against the full-bodied voice of Bergquist, Detweiler sounds gentle and slightly vulnerable. It’s the perfect choice to drive home this rumination over the nature of blessing and forgiveness by the light of a lone Christmas tree. He delivers “I hope that I can still believe The Christ child holds a gift for me. Am I able to receive, peace on Earth this Christmas?” with a sort of weary pragmatism that bring back every moment of holiday doubt you ever had. The other purely Christmas song, the Jack Henderson penned and co-vocaled “Bethlehem,” uses snippets of a popular Christmas standard to comment on the state of the world, reminding us “Mary she was just a kid, Jesus was a refugee. A virgin and a vagabond yearning to be free. Now in the dark streets shining is their last chance of a dream.”
Other standout tracks on “Blood Oranges in the Snow” include the cathartic “Let it Fall”, the tenderly depressing “My Father’s Body”, and a cover of the Merle Haggard classic “If We Make It Through December.” So ingrained in the collective consciousness with Merle Haggard’s whiskey soaked and world-weary voice, it’s a song that should never work with Bergquist’s smoky jazz-infused folk vocals but somehow does like a Christmas miracle.
But if you only download one song from “Blood Oranges in the Snow,” make sure it’s “First Snowfall.” This tale of a new year dawning on a run down part of town is simultaneously haunting and inspiring, with lyrics like “40 ounces of liquor for 30 pieces of silver and your temporary suicide has all been arranged” mixed with “It’s like an angel starts singing an old gospel song in that part of town where no angel belongs. But what is this music that falls on my ear, it’s the very first snowfall of a very long year.”
It’s hard to ever recommend shelling out $10 for an album that, unless you’re one of those weirdos who drags out your tree on Labor Day, you’ll likely only get to use about a month per year. But the beauty of “Blood Oranges in the Snow” is that about 2/3 of the album is more “winter” than “Christmas” and could very easily stay in your rotation year-round. It’s an unusual holiday record and probably one that won’t appeal to some people. But for fans of Over the Rhine, this is a gift that should keep on giving year after year.