The Handsome Family have written some of the most haunting and beautiful songs in American music. During their 25-year career Brett and Rennie Sparks (a.k.a. The Handsome Family) have created songs that transform the mundane landscape of modern life into a place of mysterious portent. As Greil Marcus said, “… their everyday surrealism has no parallel in contemporary writing…”
Handsome Family songs take place in parking lots and big box stores, under overpasses and in airports. They sing about Custer’s last stand and automatic lawn sprinklers in the same song. Rennie’s lyrics often focus on the myriad creatures that live at the edges of the man-made world. Brett’s music relies on a wealth of classical models from Bach to Brecht to the Beatles. Sometimes he uses “word painting” to carefully illuminate the text. Other times he deliberately undercuts the lyrical mood to create an uncomfortable tension— that happy-sad bittersweetness The Handsome Family are famous for. Many great songwriters have covered their work, among them Jeff Tweedy, Jason Lytle, and Andrew Bird (who released an entire record of Handsome Family songs).
This summer the Sparks’ are taking a break from work on their 11th album to hit the road in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the release of their ground-breaking third record Through the Trees. Mojo magazine named the album one of the 10 essential Americana records of all time. Jeff Tweedy actually loaned them most of the equipment used to record it. He also sang and played guitar on several tracks.
Handsome Family shows are famously relaxed. Their songs can be dark, but there’s always laughter on stage. There’s even some whooping from the crowd these days with the addition of Alex McMahon (guitars, steel, keyboards) and Jason Toth (drums, keyboards, sampler). Rennie sings as well as plays Autoharp, banjo, and uke bass. She often introduces songs with seemingly unrelated stories. Brett, with his resonant voice and grand beard, is a powerful presence at the center of the stage. There are a lot of new faces at shows these days, brought by “Far From Any Road,” which became a global hit when it was the theme to season one of True Detective. Both Guns ’N Roses and Bruce Springsteen have used “Far From Any Road” as walk-in music and the song is often played at hockey games.
And, believe it or not— David Bowie’s recently published notebooks contain a line that simply says, “Handsome Family.” Who knows what might have been?
Honey Moon, 2009
Last Days of Wonder, 2006
Singing Bones, 2003
Live at Schuba's, 2002
Smothered and Covered, 2002
In the Air, 2000
Down in the Valley, 1999
Through the Trees, 1998
Milk and Scissors, 1996