Category: Handsome Family

Review: The Handsome Family, Honey Moon

Brett and Rennie Sparks have been married and making music for more than a decade, and over that time, they’ve settled into a signature sound combining Brett’s deep baritone and penchant for mid-tempo alt-country balladry with Rennie’s surreal, macabre, often whimsical lyrics. For eight albums, the approach has yielded more than its share of solidly crafted gems, though by now surprise is no longer much of a factor. The new Honey Moon colors within the same lines. Recorded to mark their 20th wedding anniversary, the album narrows the lyrical focus to a single topic—love—and downplays the murder ballads and apocalyptic imagery of earlier discs. Still, Rennie’s choice of romantic imagery is as genially warped and haunted as ever. “A Thousand Diamond Rings” returns to a favorite theme of finding moments of strange beauty in the utterly mundane, as an Albuquerque sunset reflects off broken glass next to a pawnshop. She paints an idyllic vision of love in verdant groves in “Junebugs,” but her puckish sense of humor turns that idea on its head elsewhere, exploring the tenderness in the courtship of insects and primitive cave-people: “I perch on branches and bellow, while dreaming only of thee.”

Originally published on April 21, 2009. Read the complete article.

Inventory: 12 Songs About Shopping

10. Billy Bragg, “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty”
It’s only to be expected that rock’s most outspoken socialist would view shopping with a skeptical eye. In this song from Billy Bragg’s fiery 1983 debut EP, he mocks the notion at the heart of the modern advertising industry—namely, that a person can simply buy happiness as long as she “buys what she’s told to buy.” But he isn’t being a grinch: His proletarian anger isn’t directed at the girls trying to buy their way into better lives, but the lies they’re fed that try to get them to hand over cash for a chance at a mostly illusory “mail-order paradise.”

11. The Handsome Family, “24-Hour Store”
Where Billy Bragg worries that the world of commerce damages people by making them see things that aren’t real, Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family is troubled instead by lonely, isolated people who might be happy if only they could see the miraculous world that’s hidden from them. “24-Hour Store” is a typically Sparks-esque combination of ghostly mysticism and detached observation of mundane life. It’s easy to imagine Sparks off in a corner at her neighborhood Wal-Mart at midnight, watching the insomniacs pushing broken carts down the aisle in a mild, sad stupor, while invisible angels “fly through lights… in particles of light that fall from the sun.” Whether she’s talking about God, art, or some other spiritual lack is, well, immaterial.

Originally published on Dec. 1, 2006 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Billy Bragg and the Handsome Family. Read the complete article.

Review: The Handsome Family, Last Days Of Wonder

Dividing the chores is an essential part of any marriage. Albuquerque duo Brett and Rennie Sparks split the task of songwriting between Rennie’s dark, dreamlike lyrics and Brett’s home-produced alt-country music and deep, resonant baritone. Imagine Edward Gorey writing lyrics for Johnny Cash. The process has served them well through seven albums, but rarely has the combination been as rich as on Last Days Of Wonder, an especially strong showcase of the Sparks’ rare combination of whimsy and morbidity. Last Days‘ title comes from Puritan witch-hunter Cotton Mather, who constantly worried about invisible spirits pervading the world of mortals. Ghosts also haunt Last Days, though not the way Mather might have imagined. “Your Great Journey” imagines an afterlife where bodiless souls quietly wander the Earth alone, intangible and stuck in mundanity: “Automatic sinks in airports no longer see your hands.”

Last Days is shot through with wry, detached scenes of people failing to connect, or not even realizing there’s a connection to be made. The Sparks wonder about the strangers seen at fast-food drive-though lanes and in waiting rooms, lives glimpsed for the briefest of moments and then dismissed, since we all have our own lives to live. It’s no surprise that the album’s greatest expression of sympathy is for eccentric genius Nikola Tesla, whose final days are profiled in the album’s best song, “Tesla’s Hotel Room,” a sort of gloomy answer to The Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill.” Last Days is easily the duo’s most thematically consistent set of songs. The Sparks don’t seem particularly interested in experimenting with new musical styles, but that isn’t a weakness so much as an unswerving fix on what they do better than anyone else. It isn’t likely to attract a new set of fans, but those receptive to The Handsome Family’s spell will listen to Last Days with wonder.

Originally published on July 5, 2006. Read the complete article.

Interview: Brett and Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family

Few alt-country bands have the haunted gravitas of The Handsome Family. On albums like Singing Bones, Through The Trees, In The Air, and Twilight, the Albuquerque-based husband-and-wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks creates dark-humored songs that seem to conjure up the ghosts of old American folk music, with Brett’s deep baritone a perfect match for Rennie’s sardonic lyrics, which recall stories by Flannery O’Connor or Joyce Carol Oates. The duo is currently on tour with eccentric Southern writer and musician Jim White, who appears with them in the recent documentary Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus. The A.V. Club caught up with the Sparks recently by phone.

Originally published on Feb. 8, 2006. Read the complete article.

WordPress Themes

Spam prevention powered by Akismet