Through the Trees

MOJO 8/04
Reader's poll voted "Through the Trees" one of the ten essential Americana albums.
"The country music husband-wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks write and perform dark and elemental, mischievous and mournful. Their third album, is still their best, with enduring songs like "Weightless Again" and "Cathedrals". Their lyrics read like American gothic short stories; their melodies sound like they're channelling each and every one of the ghost riders in the sky; and Brett sings like the unnatural union between Nick Cave and Johnny Cash. Recorded in various living rooms and bathrooms on equipment borrowed from Wilco's Jeff Tweedy." (Sylvie Simmons)

Entertainment Weekly 3/6/98
...Brett and Rennie Sparks write songs that defy easy labeling: The extended family seems to include Uncle Tupelo and the Louvin Brothers. Which is to say Trees' best tracks are at once lilting and dangerous, like shiny toys with sharp edges. A- (Wook Kim)

The Chicago Reader 1/97
On their third and latest CD, Through the Trees (Carrot Top), Chicago's Handsome Family emerge space cowboys in the best sense: anchored by the sparest of electronic beats, shorn of all but the simplest instrumentation, their homespun ballads seem as arid and limitless as a desert. When drummer Mike Werner left the band a year ago, husband-and-wife songwriters Brett and Rennie Sparks started using a drum machine to order their guitar, bass, banjo, and Autoharp; and while such a gadget might seem antithetical to their rural sound, its passionless rhythm actually complements Rennie's morbid lyrics, in which personal relationships turn as strange, beautiful, and menacing as forces of nature. On "Weightless Again" Brett confesses, "I wanted to kiss you, but I wasn't sure how," then draws a prolonged parallel to some South American Indians who couldn't remember how to start a fire even though they all carried torches. And on "I Fell," which begins and ends with a lonely wood block, the singer sees his lover in the icy branches of a tree and again in the mouth of a horse's bleached skull. As the record's title suggests, the wind is a constant, ominous presence; in "The Woman Downstairs" it seamlessly connects these city folk with their western material. The singer befriends the anorexic title character in the laundry room of their apartment building. After the woman dies, a cop steals her TV, her boyfriend sits on the fire escape weeping, and the singer dreams of lying down on the el tracks. "When the wind screamed up Ashland Avenue," croons Brett in his dark baritone, "the corner bars were full by noon." In the Handsome Family's eyes, city slickers and country people alike are stranded in an existential ghost town. (J.R. Jones)

The Sunday Times (London)
The bassist Rennie Sparks...pens stunningly direct lyrics that stand comparison with Robert Frost or Raymond Carver. "The Woman Downstairs" balances emotive sincerity and detached black comedy with thrilling precision. Sparks's words are crooned by her husband, the guitarist Brett Sparks, over a country-noir backing. Depending on your mood, Through the Trees might reduce you to floods of tears or fits of giggles. How dare these smug, bespectacled types mess with our heads like this? That said, in the wake of the exhausting earnestness of genre-mates Son Volt or Jolene, it's flattering to be allowed the luxury of uncertainty. (Stewart Lee)

Salon magazine 3/98
Nature's creepy. It seeps into your wounds and infects you; it covers your trees with ice, and it stalls your car. It's not climate-controlled and it doesn't live in your home entertainment center. And it coats with dust and peppers with age"Through the Trees," the third record by the Handsome Family. Expanding their sound from the standard bass, guitar and drums to include a wider range of instrumentation -- softer guitars, autoharp, banjo, Dobro, violin, bass, melodica, piano, a quiet, unobtrusive drum machine and Brett's sturdy, beautiful voice -- the Handsome Family create a strange amalgam of pre-World War II country music and a more current, subdued, slightly twangy rock, with lush but simple arrangements. They write songs with a perfect narrative arc, and they seldom waste time showing off; they just set to music tangled, tense stories that sit like perfect little objects of nature -- like pine cones or something. Entering "Through the Trees" is like passing through the threshold of a cabin door and into the woods on the first day of spring, or just after an ice storm, into a mysterious world, one where "worms circle like sharks" and "crickets are screaming." In these settings the Handsome Family create emotionally wrecked characters who are constantly battling dangerous impulses as they roam around the woods -- or sometimes, through the streets of Chicago. In "Giant of Illinois," two boys who chanced upon a swan sleeping in the woods "stormed it with rocks till it collapsed in the reeds." In "My Sister's Tiny Hands," a girl, mourning the death of her twin from a snake bite in the forest, "set the woods to burning and choked the river up with stones." These are old-school country songs, grotesque and brutal, and through these narratives they offer something dumbfoundingly magical-- something far removed from anything remotely meta or post. "Through the Trees" is also about relationships-- birth, death and the "Cathedrals," the Handsome Family move from a cathedral in Cologne that "looks like a spaceship" to icy Wisconsin: "Hoping to feel love under the icicles, all we did was drink in an empty bar. But, stumbling drunk we crawled back to our motel room and I fell against you and felt your beating heart." Underneath it all flows a debilitating sense of dread and awe; a restless black fog floats in the record's stomach, the result of playing with dangerous emotions....Also inside is a wicked sense of humor that cuts through the existential dread. "My Ghost," the closing song on the album, tells the true story of a stay in a mental hospital: "Here in the bipolar ward if you shower you get a gold star. But I'm not going far till the Haldol kicks in -- until then, until then -- I'm stuck in this fucking twin bed and I won't get any cookies or tea, till I stop quoting Nietzsche and brush my teeth and comb my hair." Like some form of clairvoyant madness, "Through theTrees" sneaks in faintly, as though a whisper from a secret world -- one that's always there right outside the door, waiting patiently for an opportunity to consume you. (Randall Roberts)

Raygun 3/98
If Brett and Rennie Sparks received heaps of praise for 1996's Milk and Scissors, little will prepare fans for the ambitious turn they've taken on their new album. Milk and Scissors' best moments came from breathing new possibility into alternative country. The band gained a lot of supporters, among them Mekon/Waco Brother Jon Langford and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who guests on Through the Trees. But the Handsomes really reinvent their sound here, bringing a dynamic instrumental palette--banjo, melodica, autoharp, fiddle, tuba, drum machines and modest sampling--to their already haunting, cinematic lyrical scope. The twangy, rural "Cathedrals," "Stalled," and "Down in the Valley of Hollow Logs" represent the Sparks' base sound--shade of Hank and Merle, yearning two-part harmonies, guitar based song structures--but genres blur on tracks like "I Fell" and the gorgeous "Last Night I Went Out Walking," where Hank's ghost moans to a crawling waltz of bass/organ/guitar accompaniment. "The Woman Downstairs" borrows Bad Livers instrumentation (Tuba!) to meld roots, ragtime, and orchestral pop to a thoroughly gritty, verite urban tale. Somewhere between the Handsomes' past and future lies "The Giant of Illinois," a gem rich with strings and Brett Sparks' clear baritone vocal. Heirs to a lineage that includes (the shamefully ignored) Souled American, Freakwater, and Palace, The Handsome Family's challenging tunes posit muse, eccentricity, and guts over genre categories, making Though the Trees a fascinating, rewarding listen. (Mark Woodlief)

Chicago Tribune 1/30/98
The Handsomes are tapping into a songwriting tradition that predates the latest alternative-country trend, and stretches back to the music found on Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music," a chronicle of coal miner laments, Appalachian ballads, country spirituals and dirt-road blues from the 1920s and '30s, and centuries-old Scottish ballads. "One of my favorite records of all time is the Louvin Brothers' `Tragic Songs of Life,' ...13 songs that all have the same ending," says Brett Sparks. "It's the kind of music I keep going back to -- these songs about a guy walking to the river with his favorite girl and in the next verse she's floating face down in it." Though there are hints of country twang in the Family sound, Nashville purists might have a hard time fathoming a so-called country band that employs a drum machine. "We're going `countronica,' " jokes Brett Sparks, crediting the Waco Brothers' Jon Langford for coining a genre that fuses country and electronica. "All the rhythm beds on the new album are a drum machine...."Through the Trees" employs Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Kingsize studio engineer Dave Trumfio and the sound of crickets and thicken the haunting atmosphere. There's something about the unflinching dignity of Brett Sparks' voice singing his wife's lyrics, so layered with nuance and meaning, that defies easy categorization. In this ambiguity can be found the strength of the Handsome Family. (Greg Kot)

Boston Phoenix 3/6/98
The Sparkses draw most of their ideas from early country music, chiefly the sense that the songs speak though the singer: Brett delivers most of them in a sort of '50s baritone twang, allowing Rennie's darkly detailed lyrics to work their subtle magic. The Handsomes draw on conventional country melodies (as on "Cathedrals") and standard folk-song symbols (the "lily-white breast" and "silver dagger" of the double-suicide ballad "Down in the Valley of Hollow Logs"). But they integrate modernity with arrangements that incorporate everything from drum machine to melodica to tuba, and songs that allude to Haldol and Slice and the Chicago public transportation system. Through the Trees is a timeless album for urban grown-ups, a disc whose twin beds and death wishes resonate beyond the here and now. (Douglas Wolk)

Chicago Sun-Times 1/30/98
Through the Trees'' is the group's lushest album, incorporating tuba, banjo, autoharp, melodica and featuring guest vocals from Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. But as in the past, the focus is kept on Rennie's razor-sharp lyrics, which are perfectly paired to Brett's deep, grumbling voice. In ``Weightless Again,'' the amazing opening track, the couple looks at suicide: ``This is why people O.D. on pills/And jump from the Golden Gate Bridge/Anything to feel weightless again.'' And in ``My Ghost,'' Brett addresses his experiences in a state mental hospital. ``I'm strapped to this [fucking] twin bed,'' Brett sings. ``And I won't get any cookies or tea/Until I stop quoting Nietzsche/And brush my teeth and comb my hair.'' ``Through the Trees'' finds the Handsomes striking the perfect balance between silly and somber, merging the lighthearted approach of 1994's ``Odessa'' and the considerably darker vibe of 1996's ``Milk and Scissors.'' While in some songs they're portraying fanciful characters such as ``The Giant of Illinois,'' in others they're baring their souls to one another, like the Fleetwood Mac of``Rumours,'' but with better music. (Jim Derogatis)

New Musical Express (NME) 8/10
Accompanying this album is a photograph. On that photograph stand Brett and Rennie Sparks. They are dressed in early-century Wild West cloth, positioned next to an ancient piano under a picture of what is, presumably, intended to be their granny in mid-19th century get-up. Welcome to the wonderful period-existence of The Handsome Family. A genuine husband-and-wife team who think nothing of adorning the stage of their live shows with plastic animals and who forge the most beautifully dark American country folk music you're likely to hear this side of the Nick Cave and Johnny Cash 'Together, At Last' tour. For that is, unsettlingly, exactly what happens on 'Through The Trees': a panoramic snapshot of a life spent strumming around prairie campfires or in The Last Chance Saloon and relaying tales of love lost and madness gained. Brett may play the tune while Rennie pens the tragedies, but it could so easily have been John and Nick. Indeed, the Sparks' individual histories go some way to clarifying their left-field country and western logic. He, apparently, was a compulsive pillow-purchaser who would feast on champers and Whiskas while attempting to write his own bible and isn't averse to the odd mental breakdown; while she, apparently, was the school freak who read The Iliad in 4th Grade much to the derision of 'adjusted' pupils. So now you see where the old-skool, lovers' suicide pact ('Down In The Valley Of Hollow Logs') or the overwhelming memories of a missed romance ('I Fell') or the notes on insanity ('My Ghost') with the choice couplet, "My ghost drives around with a bag of dead fish/Falling neutrinos drift through the trees/He staggers and reels/Runs up credit card bills and clogs up the toilet with bottles of pills" all come from. They come from The Handsome Family and they come from Hell's ditch armed with love. SCORE: 8 out of a possible 10. (Darren Johns)

Lincoln Journal Star 3/6/98
The is what the Carter Family might have sounded like on acid, as Rennie's heavily imagistic lyrics are set to melodies. Sin, depravity, flames, insanity, and death stalk this record. Aptly titled, it sounds like the perfect soundtrack for stumbling though a thick, ancient forest as darkness falls...The songs resonate with genuine mystery and a brutal beauty unmatched by anyone. "Every creature casts a shadow under the sun's golden finger, but when the sun sinks past the waving grass, some shadows are dragged along," Brett observes ominously in the chorus of "My Sisters Tiny Hands." Through the Trees is music from those shadows. (Daniel P. Meser)

CMJ 2/2/98
Brett and Rennie Sparks live in a mysterious rural underworld filled with chilling tales and exhilarating harmonies. [Though the Trees] puts the final touches on their truly unique, highly acclaimed sound. With roots in Hank Williams' style...their rustic music paints a beautifully sparse sonic picture. Rennie's impeccable lyrics, encased in this marvelous musical shell make for an unforgettable combination. The standout track here is "Cathedrals," on which Brett's deep vocals are matched with Jeff Tweedy's tenor scrape. Together, the two voices breathe life into Rennie's lyric's, and are exquisitely complemented by intricately interweaving instruments. Though the Trees is bound to make an impact on fans of the "No Depression" scene, but its enveloping vibes really create a sound different from trad alt-country. Anyone interested in provocative songwriting will be moved by Though the Trees. (David Day)

Magnet 3/98
It takes a while to get your bearing when you first set foot in the world of the Handsome Family...What's really hard, though, is the moment you realize that Brett Sparks is singing about your own world. It's just seen through the eyes of Sparks and his wife, who writes most of the Handsome Family's jarring, incisive and always original lyrics. The gorgeous "Weightless Again" sets the tone, as Brett's deep voice tells you "why people OD on pills ... anything to feel weightless again." The record builds to the stunning one-two of "The Woman Downstairs" and "Last Night I Went Out Walking," which look squarely into both voids: the out there and the one on the inside. The Sparks' world is our world seen without the comforts of denial or even the luxury of blinking.
(Phil Sheridan)