Uncut Magazine
The Handsome Family: Singing Bones
#14 album of 2003
The Albuquerque husband-and-wife team continue to leave the leftfield country pack trailing in their dark wake on their sixth studio release. Reconfiguring Buck Owens, The Band, and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music through Rennie Sparks' twisted literacy and Brett's doleful burr, it is invariably stunning Americana.


Paste
The Handsome Family: Singing Bones
(Dec. 2003)
4 stars
If you haven't experience the sublime depths of Brett Spark's baritone and the inspired resonance of Rennie Sparks's lyrics, there has never been a better chance than on "Singing Bones". The seven effort from this husband-and-wife team is such a consistently brilliant work that you may wonder what you've been doing with your life before hearing them. While on the surface their work is ostensibly an exercise in traditional and country motifs, closer inspection reveals something wholely other. "Gail with the Golden Hair" is a rich and haunting tale of mystery set to a soft country waltz, while "The Bottomless Hole" is a hilarious and rather creepy monologue of one man's obsession with the unknown. Indeed, a theme of the irresistable pull of the unseen runs through the record, with protagonists who aren't sure if what they chase will be beautiful or horrific. It all comes together with twanging guitars, twinkling keyboards and sweet solos on the singing saw. Essential stuff (Tim Sheridan)

Los Angeles Daily News
The Handsome Family: Singing Bones
Grade: A
The husband-and-wife songwriting team of Brett and Rennie Sparks continue to explore American Gothic music's surreal horizons on one of the couple's most bizzarely beautiful albums yet.

Brett's spaced, deadpan vocals give voice to halucinating convenience store clerks, lovers of lost women and farmers who just have to see how deep that bottomless hole out back goes.

Rennie adds haunting back-up singing, Autoharp and banjo. This family has operated on the far edges of weirdness for so long, they make it sound like they're right at home. (Bob Strauss)


Seattle Weekly
The Handsome Family: Singing Bones
(Feb. 2004)
It's a shame that Johnny Cash and the Handsome Family never had an opportunity to collaborate during his lifetime. On Singing Bones their sixth and latest album, the Albuquerque-based duo radiate Rick Rubin's most distinguished meal ticket's aesthetic paternity to an extent that his biological progeny would never dream of. But Cash's fiery hoop is just one of the forms of flame that tempers vocalist/instrumentalist Brett Sparks' supple baritone, an instrument informed by honky-tonk hierophants and singing cowboys ranging from Marty Robbins to early 20th-century Appalachian minstrel Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Lyricist and occasional backup singer Rennie Sparks casts her narrative net just as widely and at least as well, marrying Flannery O'Connor and H.P. Lovecraft with so much homespun eloquence that her partner comes out macking like a surrealist Tom T. Hall. Or, in the case of "The Bottomless Hole" (an on-site report from a man who's been plummeting down the song's titular pit in an untethered bathtub for quite some time and shows no sign of stopping—ever), truck-stop troubadour Red Sovine. The way Sparks half croons, half keens, "My name I don't remember/Though I hail from Ohio/I had a wife and children/Good tires on my car," over a simple, loping banjo-and-brushed-snare accompaniment without so much as a trace of irony is just one of Singing Bones's countless finesse indicators. (Naturally, the hole is behind the guy's barn.) As with the other tracks on the album, the song's simple, beautiful music (recorded in the duo's garage) and otherworldly lyrics mesh perfectly as angels fucking in an abandoned wheelbarrow. (Rod Smith)

The Absolute Sound
The Handsome Family: Singing Bones
(Dec. 2003)
Transplanted Albuquerquians by way of a Chicago stopover, husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks have quietly been making the finest in acoustic country and bluegrass-laden folk as The Handsome Family for nearly ten years. A native Texan, Brett possesses a yawning baritone that can echo like the inside of a stalactite-infested cave or, on a dime, trasnport listeners to the Old West or Smokey Mountains. But this isn't cautious Gillian Welch-style roots revivalism, "Singing Bones" is the Sparks's sixth studio record, and fourth successive outstanding excursion on which Rennie's creepy modern tales of sudden death, paranormal mysteries, descents into madnes and God fearing maladies unsmirkingly meld with Brett's achingly beautiful melodies and tender ballads. Bowed basses, musical saws, keyboards and mandolins are the instruments of choice. Rennie still picks her banjo and autoharp, though in a change of pace, makes just one appearance on background vocals. This allows Brett a few a cappella turns and the opportunity to layer his boming voice. On "24-Hour Store" a yarn about a haunted Wal-Mart and one of the eeriest tunes the duo has yet delivered, spine-chilling harmonies make ghosts and bones jointly cry as one choir. Like every Handsome Faily album, "Singing Bones" was recorded in the duo's home studio. Sonics are fairly spongy and aren't extremely detailed, but by no means are they lo-fi. Call this grave-digging music, and what Marty Robbins, Doc Boggs, Ira Louvin, and Johnny Cash are listening to while throwing back another boilermaker in that great bar in the sky.


The Times
The Handsome Family: Singing Bones
(Loose Recordings)
4 stars
The alt.country tag has become a catch-all, used to describe everyone from Ryan Adams to Wilco. Yet if you had to choose one act that epitomises the genre, it would surely be the Handsome Family. They are certainly country, with Brett Sparks's Johnny Cash baritone accompanied by traditional banjos, dobros, autoharps and mandolins. And with Rennie Sparks's darkly skewed lyrics, they are also undeniably alternative.

On Singing Bones they rip holes in the veil between this world and the next as they sing of haunted supermarkets, madness, singing toads, a lake that can be visited only in your dreams and whispering shadows. Recorded in the backwoods of New Mexico, the songs conjure up images of what the writer Greil Marcus famously called "the old weird America" of those antique Appalachian ballads.

This is music that moves forward by turning the clock back - haunting, primal and strangely heroic.

Nigel Williamson

 

The Independent
10 October 2003

Album Of The Week
The Handsome Family
Singing Bones (Loose)
4 Stars
Reviewed by Andy Gill

Rarely, even in the fatalistic world of country music, has the precarious mystery of mortality been captured with such poetic grace as on Singing Bones, The Handsome Family's sixth album. Death stalks these songs, walking side-by-side with the lives it blights, an equal partner anxious to assure us that it is merely a transcendent, rather than terminal, state. Why else would the subjects of "The Song of a Hundred Toads" and "Fallen Peaches" approach their impending doom with such equanimity? In the latter, the narrator is a soldier who, having seen his fallen comrade's soul ("a fiery mist") depart his body for heaven, thrusts himself wilfully into a hail of bullets; in "The Bottomless Hole", it's simple curiosity which results in the protagonist's literal downfall, relating his story as he plummets eternally downwards.

There's no trace of irony in the mainstream country arrangements, full of lachrymose pedal steel and earnest harmonies, with which husband and wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks underscore the heightened poetic intensity of a song like "The Forgotten Lake", within whose inky depths "... covered wagons/ And the wings of missing planes/ Float beneath blind fish/ Underneath the velvet waves". Linking the cowboy past of besieged wagon trains with that most fundamental of modern travellers' fears, the air disaster, is typical of the way the Sparks adapt the doomy frisson of traditional folk songs to more contemporary situations. Likewise, "Sleepy" offers an account of alien abduction, delivered with the sententious sincerity of a gospel sermon, while "Dry Bones" - a reworking of Bascom Lamar Lunsford's 1928 original - recycles biblical imagery with Shaker enthusiasm.

Elsewhere, the forest and the desert are the sources of primal, atavistic spirits who lure the unwary to their doom in "Whitehaven" and "Far from Any Road", while the notion of spiritual presences obtrudes further into the mundane modern world in "A Shadow Underneath" and "24-Hour Store". In the former, an office worker goes about her business, trying to block out the subversive whispers calling to her from the other side, while the latter deftly evokes the plodding ennui of "the sleepless and lost/ push[ing] their squeaking carts/ Down the rows of clothes", blithely unaware of the "singing bones" and "crying ghosts" around them, represented by the weeping strains of bowed saw. It's some measure of Brett Sparks' vocal technique that he even manages to invest a line like "Opening and closing automatic doors" with a truly moving dignity and poignance, as if the doors in question were the very gates of heaven.

Bringing a striking apprehension of the numinous into the everyday present, Singing Bones is a masterpiece of modern American Gothic, an album that makes no compromise with the rhinestone-and-big-hat fakery of mainstream Nashville fare.

 

AMERICANA UK

There is a theme, much used in songs of a thoughtful nature, that if you
travel far enough away, you will actually be on your way back home. The same
could be applied to melancholy, and dark songs, the darker they go the more
joyous they become. On that basis, this collection from Rennie and Brett
Sparks will give you a right laugh, albeit more wry smiles than guffaws.
"The Bottomless Hole" contains the lines "I had a wife and children, good
tires on my car." which is as fine an example of zeugma, or ironic
juxtaposition, that I can recall, in fact it's the only one I can recall,
having never thought about it for one moment, since the dark days of my
literary education, until I heard this album. Having been a fan of their
work for some years I can't say how a new listener to their music might
react, but on first hearing "The Song of a Hundred Toads" the positively
cheerful music, and upbeat language of a tale about a little dog called
Clyde, and a horse called Prancing Bill, is a bit disconcerting. The sun
shines and the coyotes sing, but then it all goes a bit pear shaped, and I,
for one, felt like cheering. The songs are surreal, clever and
thought-provoking, with unique imagery, increasingly inspired by the desert,
now that they have moved to New Mexico. Brett's voice seems to get stronger
and more sonorous with each recording, and the settings of the songs
complement the lyrics perfectly, with sparse instrumentation, including
musical saw and mariachi horns. Abso-bloody-lutely marvellous!
BJ

 

A HAIKU RECORD REVIEW:

The Handsome Family: Singing Bones
Rennie writes so well
Brett's voice rumbles like thunder
I need a hanky.
::reviewed by nate

 

The Handsome Family
Singing Bones

(Carrot Top Records)
By Matthew Smith

Fort Worth Weekly

The goofy term "alt-country" usually equals a pinch of country and a scoop of rock. The Handsome Family mostly plays its country straight, though the husband-and-wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks does dabble in just enough rock to qualify as "alt," making them one of the genre's most distinctive, easily identifiable outfits.

Their country has been the kind that's good and real, full of songs of life, death, tragedy, beauty in life's ugliness, and a little whimsy. Through six albums, lyrics involving three-legged dogs, young girls coughing blood, and other fun stuff have pushed the Family's sound from straight country to something like gallows-humor country. Yet aside from one funny ode to a man who plummets down a hole in a bathtub, the Family's seventh record, Singing Bones, is mostly serious. Think Springsteen's Nebraska but with a southern gothic sensibility. Here brooding hearts can quietly celebrate tales of forgotten lakes haunted by dream fragments, mortality, and barefoot girls in white gowns or the living but aimless ghosts staring at nothing in 24-hour stores. All of this is really robust stuff.

Though radio-friendly country in sound, Singing Bones still can't be classified so easily, being in spirit and measure an expansive work of sublimity, distress, and sparseness. With this pristine offering, The Handsome Family joins Neko Case, Calexico, and a host of others on the list of worthies not getting the attention they deserve. Welcome to the club.

fwweekly.com