Rennie and Brett Sparks, the core of The Handsome Family, have what looks to be a terrific marriage. They've been together for about twenty years, they're into the same things and they have jobs that allow them to be in each other's company. On the other hand, you listen to "Through the Trees" and you have to wonder just what's going on at their house.
It's always dangerous to assume that any creative person's work has anything to do with his or her life, of course. Let's just say that this record is - interesting. Some of it, at least, emerged from Brett's stay in a psychiatric hospital for bipolar disorder. We know this because the Sparkses have acknowledged that the lyrics to "My Ghost" concern that very thing. I doubt, however, that the song is to be taken literally, unless you think that Brett's actual spirit really drives around with a bag of dead fish, charges too many things on his credit cards and throws bottles of pills down the toilet until it overflows. So if that number, based on an actual incident, is to be understood allegorically, we'll have to assume that the other numbers on "Through the Trees" are equally symbolic.
Good thing, too. Not to put too find a point on it, these tunes are weird. That's mostly down to Rennie, who writes almost all the lyrics. Like Brett, she's a bit of an antiquarian, and takes her inspiration from things like 19th-century mountain songs about death and hauntings. Sometimes she seems to write from the male point of view for Brett to sing, and sometimes she evidently disregards gender altogether, which is pretty impressive. If you ask me, though, her greatest gift may be for choosing details. She's good at pointing out things like the way frozen wood squeaks and cracks, and she's generally careful to mention what color lizards are (orange) or what you might find in the empty pool at a small-town motel (old lounge chairs, if you're interested).
None of which would have quite the same impact if it weren't for the fact that Rennie seems unafraid of death and the passion that can arise from the knowledge that life doesn't last forever. The first song on this album, "Weightless Again", takes that very thing for its subject. It starts by recalling a trip through a redwood forest, which in turn reminds the singer that the Native Americans who used to live there had to carry fire with them because they didn't know how to make it. That's a heavy thing to deal with, as is the case with much of life, and Rennie goes on to claim that it's that very heaviness that causes so many suicides - "This is why people o.d. on pills, and jump from the Golden Gate Bridge / Anything to feel weightless again."
Elsewhere, lovers commit suicide for no very obvious reason except that their love is so all-consuming. Women starve themselves to death, men calmly freeze in stalled pickups during snowstorms, frozen mountains and bleached bones remind people of their lovers, boys lose their twin sisters to snakebite and respond by setting the woods on fire, and believe it or not it's all just beautiful partly because Rennie is so good at painting word pictures.
The other reason it's so beautiful is, of course, Brett's music. He's the Handsome Family's lead singer most of the time, and he's got this deep, broad, occasionally clumsy instrument that wouldn't be out of place in a carnival. He's also a terrific guitarist, and loves to add things like harmonium and tuba and autoharp and Rennie's banjo to the arrangements. It's a little like hearing Bullwinkle bump around in a melodrama. It keeps things from getting too heavy and serious, while leaving the most moving elements alone.
To get a good sense of how effective this approach can be, listen to "The Woman Downstairs", which concerns the death of a woman from anorexia. The lyrics describe her boyfriend's grief, the singer's evident crush on her, the thoughtlessness of the police and the way life just goes on regardless. That's a miserable theme, but Brett's tune is nothing less than jaunty; its rhythm comes on tuba, the singer double-tracks himself in two different octaves, and gradually you find yourself singing along.
Not all the songs are so chipper, of course, but even the saddest include something more than just misery, which keeps them from being depressing. "Last Night I Went Out Walking" is instructive. It's Brett's only lyric on this record, and its arrangement consists of a synthesizer backing a guitar playing one note at a time. It reminds me a little of some of the music from "Twin Peaks". Its lyric is similarly sparse - Brett apparently doesn't write with Rennie's poetic invention, but he does describe the breakdown of a relationship in telling details. "I want to run and tell you the thoughts that are in my head," sings Brett, "but I don't think that you'd believe a single word I said." Which is pretty depressing, but its inventiveness keeps it from being a total downer. That's quite a trick for just two people to pull off, even with some talented guests. Particularly if they're collaborating on a marriage as well as music.
I'm told that Ringo Starr is a fan of the Handsome Family, which isn't surprising when you consider that he once said he was excited to go to Texas with the Beatles because Lightnin' Hopkins came from there. Rennie and Brett Sparks, although they grew up in New York and Texas and formed their band in Chicago, sound like they come from the most rural areas of America. Well, someone's got to preserve old American music and adapt it for the 21st century, right?
Benshlomo says, Make the old new again.
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Sep 24, 2010
Oct 17, 2010 08:02 AM UTC
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For their second album, Brett and Rennie Sparks take a more serious approach, eschewing the jokier elements of their debut and concentrating on writing country music with an urban sensibility and a post-graduate degree. It's doubtful that any previous country album included songs in praise of Cologne Cathedral or Lake Michigan, but backed by the Sparks' austere songs--often just guitar, autoharp, and drum machine--with occasional help by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, the music has an almost Appalachian simplicity and newfound depth of feeling. Like coming across a brownstone in the mountains, the Handsome Family's music is simultaneously disconcerting and strangely beautiful.--Steven Mirkin