"THE TEN BEST RECORDS YOU DIDN'T HEAR OF THE YEAR "
The Handsome Family's Rennie Sparks is a short-story writer with a gift for condensing narratives into 85-word lyrics that read like 400-year-old murder ballads in modern drag: "Tuesday at dawn Michael's glasses washed ashore with a Styrofoam box and two broken oars." Her husband, Brett, who recorded this album in their living room, has the radiant baritone of the old-timers who sang country because it was Death's favorite music. Together, they will creep the living hell out of you.
Albums Of the Year
The Handsome Family
In The Air (Loose)
A lush, serene musical backdrop recorded in Brett and Rennie Sparks' living room, the Chicago based alt-country duo's fourth album is a meditation on life and death, full of primitive enchantment, dark folklore and soul-shivering supernatural beauty. Resolutely small scale, but only Lambchop's Nixon this year displayed a similarly all-encompassing vision.
The Wall Street Journal
In the Air
The Handsome Family
Chicago-based Brett and Rennie Sparks are a husband-and-wife team with a
taste for the macabre. Their latest disk sounds at first like a traditional
country record in the vein of the Carter Family, but in "A Beautiful Thing"
Brett sings, "But, darling, don't you know it's only human/ To want to kill a
beautiful thing." And then there's "Poor, poor Lenore, carried off by crows
as she wandered alone where the red oaks grow." Not to mention the driver --
a trucker, no doubt -- with a debilitating problem: "I am afraid of
bridges/Sometimes I have to turn around when I'm driving towards one/ And my
heart begins to pound." At least, he's better off than the clam digger in
"Lie Down": "Tuesday at dawn Michael's glasses washed ashore/ With a
Styrofoam box and two broken oars." Somber ballads and fragile fiddles
underscore the sense of gloom on this oddly pleasing disk.
April 13 2000
"In the Air"
The Handsome Family make honky-pop and avant-tonk country music for people who would rather pretend Shania and Garth never existed. On its fourth album, the husband-and-wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks continue to trade in infinitely sad songs. "Above the dark highway/ on a black tar roof/Stood the sad milkman in love with the moon, " sings a resigned Brett. The gloom and desperation of "In the Air"'s lyrics are matched by solemn melodies etched out by spare, guitar-based instrumentation. Unlike some of its faux-depression, alt-country counterparts, this Chicago duo doesn't over-emote. But when Brett spins a tale about a moon that could care less and a crowd that throws bottles at a stupid, hopeless romantic, you feel his pain.
8 out of 10
"In the Air"
The Handsome Family live in Chicago to the extent they can stand to live anywhere . Lyricist Rennie Sparks has visions, and even the happy ones spook, like the mother and baby who "walk into the waves no longer fearing the tides." If Brett Sparks, who sings like Johnny Cash and fashions the Family's music out of "Long Black Veil," seems more personable then his wife, that's just a bluff. "Darling, don't you know it's only human to want to kill a beautiful thing" goes one chorus and the song truly is beautiful, the duo's craft reaching a peak.
The Village Voice
Feb. 29 2000
"In the Air"
Founded on a precarious equilibrium The Handsome Family's songs are always on the verge of collapse-though into what it's not exactly clear. Brett has a rumbling poker-faced delivery that's made for wife Rennie's black-comic Gothic narratives. There's a distinct Smithsonian Folkways feel to the enterprise, but while the murder ballad quotient is up here, Rennie will write about anything that's sufficently dark, from the universal allure of suicide to her husband's time in a mental institiuion...The new "In the Air" is their most melodic and focused work to date, its mythic story-songs deepening the Sparks' longtime fixation with nature at its most cruel--a girl carried off by crows, black ants crawling on a corpse. "Lie Down," the most memorable track, is a about a clamdigger lured to his death by the sea, but seems to be about nothing so much as the essential appeal of the Handsome Family. "Lie down, lie down in the dark rolling sea. When you get to the bottom we'll kiss you to sleep."
Greil Marcus "Real Life Top 10"
Salon.com, February 2000
The Handsome Family, aka Brett (music, vocals) and Rennie (words) Sparks of Chicago, work the deep mines of fundamentalist American music, from the pre-blues and proto-country shouts and ballads where it is presumed that there are no experiments or accidents. In this valley, all thoughts and sounds (here made with guitar, bass, banjo, melodica, piano, drum machine and autoharp) are somehow preordained. There are no seams or stitches, but only a reach toward a secret that enclosed existence before human beings learned to write and will enclose it when they have forgotten how. The Handsome Family's music is meant to seem discovered, not made; fated, not willed, but when fate is altogether out of your hands absurdity translates as guilt. Across the three albums mostly drawn on for "Down in the Valley" "Odessa," "Milk and Scissors" and "Through the Trees" -- the songs that begin as murder ballads in the recognizable line of "Omie Wise" or "Tom Dooley" -- the 1994 "Arlene," the 1996 "Winnebago Skeletons" -- reach the verge of the 1998 "My Sister's Tiny Hands," which is the "A Day in the Life" of folk music. Like the Beatles, the Handsome Family use everything they have, everything they can find; the difference is, the effects seem less to have been imposed on a composition than to be circling around a story like vultures. Shadowy clouds pass over the drama of twins so close in the womb and then in life you know neither will ever find another mate; when they are separated by a snake that leaves one dead and the other mad, winds blow through the tale so fiercely you can't tell them from baying hounds, chasing the singer through the swamp as he seeks to kill every snake on earth with a stick. But you don't have to hear the shadows, the wind, the howling. It's all subsumed into Brett Sparks' already-dead narrative tone, his refusal to give up the ghost just yet (over there, over there, one more snake!). The oldest truly common American folk song is the snakebite epic "Springfield Mountain," which is sardonic, mocking and social, a joke for the whole town to share. The aloneness that is the final subject of "My Sister's Tiny Hands" is about a much older, more notorious snake, and in this case Adam is cast out of Eden without Eve; he buried her in the garden. And it's all his fault. If he had never been born, she wouldn't have had to die. "In the Air," the Handsome Family's new album, takes many steps back from this high Gothic -- from haunts Edgar Allen Poe might have envied, never mind Bob Dylan. This is like Dylan's soft-footed "Nashville Skyline" -- with the portents and warnings of "John Wesley Harding," of "All Along the Watchtower" and "The Wicked Messenger" hiding inside it. You can miss the murders, the torments of an isolation that is far beyond the help of a mere idea like alienation, because, as the record promises, you are in the air: floating on the airs of flattened melodies, calmed orchestrations, lowered voices. The music might be all about weather, no rain in sight. Outside of the quiet spell the music casts, though, the weather may have to change many times before the songs give up what they hold.
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