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.

Gateways To Geekery: Classic crime fiction

Geek obsession: Classic crime fiction

Why it’s daunting: The roots of American crime fiction go all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe, but like science fiction, the genre exploded with the pre-World War II rise of the pulps, magazines like Black Mask and Weird Tales, which were printed on cheap paper, and written and published by people who were often after a quick buck more than they were interested in lasting, quality literature. Which means there’s a metric ton of the stuff out there, even if you focus solely on the golden age of crime fiction, and much of it is just awful—cliché tawdry tales penned by hacks. But just as H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories lived alongside a mountain of garbage in their original magazine appearances, there’s gold to be found in the old-school noir stories as well.

Possible gateway: Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest

Why: Of all the many fine writers who made their name in the pulps, Hammett ranks among the very best, with a lean, diamond-hard prose style that’s part of the DNA of just about every important piece of crime fiction that came afterward. He’s also one of the few who not only wrote it, but lived it, and Red Harvest springs directly from his experience as a strike-breaking detective for the Pinkerton Agency in the 1920s. Also, and not inconsequentially, Red Harvest is a hell of a ride. Set in a corrupt Western mining town nicknamed “Poisonville,” the novel follows a tarnished, grizzled detective—never named, and known by fans as The Continental Op—who is hired to solve the murder of the son of the tycoon who supposedly runs Poisonville. In actuality, the town has been carved up by cutthroats and mobsters, and the Op decides the only thing to do is tear the whole rotten, stinking thing down by force, powers-that-be be damned. The book is short enough to be finished in a single evening, with a nonstop mix of gun-blazing action and eminently quotable, tough-talking dialogue. Here’s the Op, declaring that he isn’t going away easy: “Your fat chief of police tried to assassinate me last night. I don’t like that. I’m just mean enough to want to ruin him for it. Now I’m going to have my fun.”

Originally published April 9, 2009 on Read the complete article.

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