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The Handsome Family

Balancing on a precipice of musical genres, C&W, “grunge” rock and bluegrass-folk, the er… HANDSOME FAMILY (Texan songwriter Brett Sparks and his Long Island-born wife Rennie) are alt-country’s answer to Gomez and Morticia, GEORGE JONES and TAMMY WYNETTE, or a distorted, updated TIMBUK 3 (remember them?), although musically speaking they were miles apart.
Formed in Chicago, Illinois, USA in 1993 the pair were initially completed by third bespectacled member, drummer Mike Werner. Born of acute personal difficulties, The HANDSOME FAMILY’s music set against a background of strife; Brett suffered a mental breakdown attempting to write his own bible!, while Rennie was the “school freak” who immersed herself in literature (Greek classic, The Iliad, is apparently her favourite). From the onset, the trio toured extensively promoting their early releases, dark country tales and life-size plastic animals unsettling audiences in both America and Europe. Initially aided by co-producer Dave Trumfio, the band of renegade “true country” folk were augmented on the aforesaid releases by studio helpers, et all.
ODESSA (1995) {*7}, was an acerbic cocktail of Nashville-meets-GORDON LIGHTFOOT-esque cues, `Arlene’, the Bible-bashing `Water Into Wine’, `Moving Furniture Around’ and `Everything That Rises Must Converge’, to the alt-rock numbers like the CREEDENCE/FOGERTY-styled `Here’s Hopin’’, the R.E.M.-ish `One Way Up’ and `Gorilla’ plus the post-grunge, `Pony’, `Claire Said’ and Rennie’s schizoid, HOLE-meets-LYDIA LUNCH-like `Big Bad Wolf’; the finale was completed by the puppy-friendly novelty dirge `Happy Harvest’.
MILK AND SCISSORS (1996) {*6}, was arguably less inventive and inspirational (COHEN/`Suzanne’-like opener, `Lake Geneva’ is testament to this), the accent was less-angst-ridden, more steely and Appalachian-textured, with the exception of `Winnebago Skeletons’ or their row
using rockabilly reading of trad folkie, `The House Carpenter’; Werner’s sole contribution was off-kilter instrumental, `Puddin’ Fingers’. Compelling tales of woe and cruel misfortunate riddled the set throughout, none more so than `The Dutch Boy’ (containing the “Milk and scissors” phrasing), `The King Who Wouldn’t Smile’ and `Amelia Earhart Vs. The Dancing Bear’.
Initially released in Germany on vinyl only, INVISIBLE HANDS (1997) {*6}, found the husband-and-wife duo (now without Werner) gaining attention outside of the confines of Americana and its roots; only opener `Tin Foil’ (from their last set) had been previously dished out. Sadly, Rennie’s squeaky vox takes a backseat arising for the moon somewhat only on the FAIRPORT-like trad number, `Barbara Allen’.
Mastered on collaborator Jeff Tweedy’s (WILCO) mobile studio (recorded as usual in Trumfio’s living room & bathroom!), 1998’s pioneering THROUGH THE TREES {*8} kicked-off with the delightfully disturbing `Weightless Again’. The track’s peerless lyrics describe their “Dead Man” emotions: “This is why people O.D. on pills, And jump… from the Golden Gate Bridge, Anything to feel weightless again”. Cloaked in the gothic FARON/NEIL YOUNG-esque vocals of Brett, The HANDSOME FAMILY’s mournful tales of tragic 19th century Wild West folklore conjure up cinematic images of barren canyons and Red Indian ghosts dancing on General Custer’s grave. Brooding vignettes and liquor-bottle ballads garnered this definitive neo-C&W set, other retro-fried highlights stemmed from `My Sister’s Tiny Hands’, `Stalled’, `Cathedrals’ (also on “Invisible Hands”), `The Woman Downstairs’ and the slightly explicit `My Ghost’; Rennie’s crazed nasal, hillbilly twang was most effective on the earthy, `Down In The Ground’.
Trading a tad on a JOHNNY CASH beat, the gloomy goths returned in 2000 with the country-flavoured, IN THE AIR {*7}. Full of whimsical murder ballads (as per usual) and recorded in the couple’s living room, the champagne on the hills stemmed from `A Beautiful Thing’, `When The Helicopter Comes’ and the NEIL YOUNG-esque `So Much Wine’. With augmentation courtesy of violinist ANDREW BIRD (ex-Squirrel Nut Zippers) and his Bowl Of Fire band, plus guitarist Darrell Sparks, the bluejeans & moonbeams of The HANDSOME FAMILY were indeed somewhere, “In The Air”.
Deliciously bleak, but achingly tender TWILIGHT (2001) {*6}, was their first album not to be recorded in a studio (it was made at their new home in Albuquerque on their computer, apparently). However, despite a usual turn of brilliance, there were faults within the set; sometimes the lyrics seemed too complex for the simplistics of Brett’s music… such as openers `The Snow White Diner’ and `Passenger Pigeons’, which are at times ruined by Brett’s bleak, foreboding croon. These issues aside, the set delivered the standard backwoods humor, `All The TVs In Town’ and `Gravity’ being particular highlights; disparate Xmas tunes such as `Peace In The Valley Once Again’, `No One Fell Asleep Alone’ and `Birds You Cannot See’ were treading a little thin (on the blanket) on the ground.
2002 saw a break of sorts, although a couple of low-key sets were issued: LIVE AT SCHUBA’S TAVERN {*5}, a rather good live album, that was initially intended for diehard fans, and self-released, part-covers long-player, SMOTHERED AND COVERED {*5}. The latter comprised of renditions of songs by KRIS KRISTOFFERSON (`Sunday Morning Coming Down’), BILL MONROE (`I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling’), The DELMORE BROTHERS (`Trail Of Time’), The ROLLING STONES (`Faraway Eyes’), and two traditional cuts `Banks Of The Ohio’ and `Knoxville Girl’ – sadly their reading of LEONARD COHEN’s `Famous Blue Raincoat’ was destined for the troubadour’s `I’m Your Man’ OST in 2006.
THE SINGING BONES (2003) {*7} was arguably richer in songwriting structure and lyrical composition, the set displayed some of the duo’s best work to date: the eerie `24 Hour Store’, the NICK CAVE-esque `The Bottomless Hole’, the CASH-meets-WILLIAMS ditty `Dry Bones’ and a duo of a cappellas `If The World Should End In Fire’ and `If The World Should End In Ice’, which, for some reason sounded like “Auld Lang Syne” being sung by a troupe of lumberjack singers from Monty Python(!).
Choosing a somewhat safe option of back-to-basics old-time country, LAST DAYS OF WONDER (2006) {*6}, The HANDSOME FAMILY returned to the fold once again. Not exactly hailed as one of their greatest, it nevertheless featured a few gothic Americana gems: `Tesla’s Hotel Room’, the TOM WAITS-cloned `These Golden Jewels’, `After We Shot The Grizzly’, `Beautiful William’ and the Rennie-sung `Hunter Green’.
Waiting another long three years and the anniversary of 20 years married, Brett and Rennie completed their 8th studio set, HONEY MOON (2009) {*7}, an eclectic record with styles ranging from Appalachian-like tunes, `Little Sparrows’, the doo-wop pop of `Linger, Let Me Linger’, the HAZLEWOOD-SINATRA-esque `Wild Wood’ and the peaceful, easy feelin’ of `A Thousand Diamond Rings’.
Celebrating 20 years in the biz, the all-God’s-creatures-themed WILDERNESS (2013) {*6} marked the end of The HANDSOME FAMILY’s 4-year sabbatical. Interweaved with “horrible histories” of General Custer, Stephen Foster and Mary Sweeney, it’s the animals, critters and fishes that take precedence over the human nature elements. Re-imagining the religious parlour ballads of the late 19th century, the spirit of nature wins over history on the likes of `Flies’, `Frogs’, `Octopus’, `Woodpecker’, `Spider’, et al.
Less subtle-as-a-sledgehammer humour and more contrived C&W than one could wave one’s Stetson at, 2016’s dour and dumbed-down UNSEEN {*6} was always going to divide their fans down the middle. The ghosts of a thousand Nashville stars lying among the ashes of `Tiny Tina’ (more “Tiny Bubbles”), `The Red Door’ (similar in structure to “I Shall Be Released”), and mostly everything else except `Gentlemen’ and rickety Rennie’s shanty-cool duet, `The Sea Rose’, the funereal HANDSOME FAMILY failed to live up to their graveyard-goth reputation.
© MC Strong 2000-2011/GRD-GFD2 // rev-up MCS May2013-Sep2016

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