Fri 12 Apr 2002
In the best folk tradition, The Handsome Family's songs tell tales - the
grimmer the better.
THIS is a Handsome Family song in the making. "Jesus, Rennie. Stay on our
side of the goddam road!" It is a dark and humorous song about a couple who
crash their car as they drive across Ireland because the wife who was
driving got excited about seeing some lambs. This is Brett and Rennie
Sparks, after all, the husband and wife writing partnership, who penned a
song on their recent fifth album, Twilight, about a woman killing herself
and her children by driving into a frozen river. The event is watched by the
singer as he eats his hash browns in a nearby diner next to two old women
eating liver and onions.
Fortunately though, this is life and not darkly humorous folk music. Rennie
manages to park her car in the layby, despite her lamb frenzy. It is a
relief to know that the Handsome Family will be in a position to continue
writing about car accidents, having avoided one.
"We are actually quite systematic when we write," says Brett down the phone
as his wife tries to entice the lambs closer. "Rennie writes the lyrics and
I write the music but it ends up being something that is different from
either of us; bigger than the two personalities. It's weird. There are three
people in our marriage; there's the two of us and the Devil. Or maybe it's
the Lord. Actually, I think it's going to be a lamb in about five minutes."
He dismisses the alt-country description tagged to artists such as Wilco and
Ryan Adams's former outfit, Whiskeytown.
"If you look at Tom Waits, he wrote a lot of country songs but no-one says
he is country. Listen to Rubber Soul by the Beatles - it's a country record.
The Rolling Stones wrote better alt.country records than anyone else in the
last 15 years. Let It Bleed and Beggar's Banquet - those are great country
Rather than being an ironic reworking of country music, the Handsome Family,
in fact, work within the broader narrative traditions of folk music. Rennie
leaves the lambs alone for a moment.
"We have this cult of personality now which has removed the narrative
element from songs. Sometimes when you tell a story in a song, people say,
'Wow! You actually killed somebody? They don't think, maybe, just maybe, you
might be telling a story.
"Most Americans experience a gap between what they should be feeling, based
on what TV and magazines tell us, and what they actually feel," she adds.
"As a consequence you become disconnected from your surroundings. The one
thing I found which reconnected me was the tradition of folk music which
luckily hasn't been completely wiped out."
There is something about the melancholic emptiness of Brett's music and the
laconic beauty of Rennie's lyrics that lifts them from beyond the confines
of even this broader classification. They address the same sense of unease
stirring somewhere in American life that Nick Cave and Polly Harvey have,
except the Handsome Family are writing about it from the inside. Their
stories and simple melodies, however, work for audiences outside America.
"Maybe I should carry one of these lambs off and dress it in baby clothes,"
Rennie says by way of conclusion. This could definitely be another Handsome
Family song in the making.