Twilight, the Handsome Family's fifth album, is set in a shadowy nether world and reasserts their position as the true modern-day inheritors of the ancient country folk surrealists gathered on Harry Smith's celebrated Anthology of American Folk Music. Rennie's songs are filled with animals ("Birds You Cannot See" and "White Dog") and natural images that are both carefree ("Peace in the Valley Once Again") and unnerving ("Snow White Diner"). The lyrics masterfully blend compassionate insight and a real sense of drama and tragedy with an eye for detail and humorous asides. Brett's vocal croon and his background in both experimental avant garde and Texan rockabilly insures that their music continues to grow far beyond the country roots. The Handsome Family happily flout convention but their stark beauty still shines through--these are some of the strangest and most compelling songs in the warped but wonderful world of alternative country. --Gavin Martin
The Handsome Family
The fifth aural sitcom noir from alt.country's leading couple is a fresh episode of the front-porch baritone of Brett Sparks and the spooky, dream lyrics of wife Rennie. It's set against old school, country-folk melodies but with a new incursion towards the antebellum ballad style of legendary US songwriter Stephen Foster. Another masterful commentary on American outsiders.
AND ALSO IN
The Independent (different region)
Few of their contemporaries have grasped the melancholy nettle of alt.country with quite the alacrity of Brett and Rennie Sparks, aka The Handsome Family, whose apprehension of mortality can be so unfathomably bleak, it borders on the comic. This fifth album is imbued with a sense of the numinous, through songs that characterize animals as agents of the supernatural ("Birds You Cannot See", "White Dog") or seek out the unseen salvatory spiritual forces at work in the world ("Gravity", "I Know You Are There"). With occasional bowed saw and melodica coloring the desultory guitar and piano settings, it's a record that seems to exist midway between this world and some shadowy parallel plane, with random observations triggering reflections upon, say the immutable cycles of life. "Twilight" is certainly aptly titled, with most narratives occurring in the half-light between day and night --a quiet epiphany of the e dusk drive home from work ("No One Fell Asleep Alone") or most memorably, the Hopper-esque tableau of "The Snow White Diner", in which the narrator watches from the diner as a suicide car is pulled from frozen lake. It's the odd, banal details that confirm the event's impact --the old deaf women in the next booth along, whose shocking laughter he finds so comforting. "They make me feel better," sings Brett Sparks, "like I'm drunk on a plane and have forgotten I'm afraid to fly."
Andy Gill, September 21, 2001
River Front Times
Tuesday, Oct. 16; Sally T's
By Randall Roberts
Inevitably, critiques of the Handsome Family's music contain a few specific words: macabre, grotesque, dark. Songs about death and darkness, blah-blah-blah. But what about death's mystique? Its confusing allure? The vicarious thrill? Must darkness be total, impenetrable -- and therefore excruciatingly dull? Must we resist the urge to glamorize it, poke at it, caress it? Or, God forbid, laugh with it?The Handsome Family knows that despite the power death has over us, it's a cop-out to simply ignore it the way we ignore the roadkill bunny on the highway as we race to a Glitter matinee. On their fifth full-length, the recently released Twilight, a ray of light shines through pain, as though lyricist/wife Rennie Sparks maybe carried the dead bunny into the Glitter matinee. "Peace in the Valley Once Again" imagines a future world in which the malls have been reclaimed by nature: "Termites ate through the doors/Rabbits hopped along the floors/The empty shelves swarmed with bees/Cash machines sprouted weeds ... and there was peace in the valley once again." Elsewhere, she imagines a world where "no one fell asleep alone." Her words and tone resemble the work of the late Edward Gorey, the illustrator/humorist whose dark drawings found humor in death. ("So Long," in fact, seems to draw inspiration from Gorey's "The Gashleycrumb Tinies.") These songs are contained in the sturdy fort vocalist/guitarist/husband Brett Sparks has constructed with music and voice. It's a sound that exists in a weird space-time continuum; drawing inspiration from old-style Anthology of American Music country blues and raw-dirt Dorthea Lange tones, songs are filled with piano, autoharp, guitar and banjo. But this age-old American aesthetic is augmented with echoes and gauze, strange feedback and itsy, unassuming electronic beats. In one of the best songs they've ever written, "There Is a Sound," a piano draws out a steady melody as Brett sings Rennie's otherworldly, borderline-psychotic
observations: "There is a sound like breaking glass when water falls on dying grass." The song proceeds in a strangely prophetic direction -- it was recorded before Sept. 11: "There is a sound old buildings cry right before the morning light/The quiet sound that's left behind when airplanes fall from the sky." The result, on Twilight, is a uniformly gentle, but scary, beauty, the kind that never gets in-yer-face or clobbers you over the head but sneaks up on you from behind, wraps its hands around your eyes and whispers into your ear.
* * * 1/2 THE HANDSOME FAMILY
"Twilight", Carrot Top
Brett and Rennie Sparks, the husband-and-wife team from Chicago who go by the name the Handsome Family, give us songs that would be in heavy rotation on any radio station hip enough to include the individuality and craft of such a wonderfully eclectic group of artists as Tom Waits, the Carter Family and Grandaddy. In other words, don't expect the Sparks to show up on "TRL" anytime soon. For those willing to search them out, however, they are precisely the kind of pop adventurers who give musical diets valuable seasoning. Their key songs have an edginess that is all the more unsettling because Brett sings Rennie's lyrics in such a deadpan style. In "The Snow White Diner," the opening track on the pair's fifth album, we hear about a man eating hash browns while cars outside are honking and lights on the bridge are flashing. A woman has killed herself and her two children because she has lost her job and doesn't want them to be poor. But all the narrator can do is watch two old women at another table. They are eating liver and onions and laughing so hard that they are banging on the tabletop. It turns out that the women are deaf, and oblivious to the commotion. The incident sets up a philosophical punch line for the song. Brett's music is nicely melodic, and the stories are just as unexpected on the other tracks of "Twilight," which ends with "Peace in the Valley Once Again," a song that celebrates the closing of the last shopping mall in America. The Handsome Family sometimes operates on a rather strange frequency, but it's a gifted and unique pop vision. Tune them in.-- Robert Hilburn
Husband-wife country duo tells more hauntingly beautiful tales from the crypt.
The saddest moment on the Handsome Family's excellent Twilight--an album comprised entirely of sad moments if there ever was one--isn't when Brett and Rennie Sparks describe a laid-off mother who kills her kids so they won't be poor. Instead, the saddest moment on the band's fifth creepy-crawly album of alt-country mourning has an otherworldly enormity much greater than those real-life tragedies: "There are birds in the darkness who lead lost dogs off highways, save children stuck in wells," Brett sings in his basement baritone on the surreal "Birds You Cannot See." It's more of a wish than an observation, an impassioned plea for faith in something larger than life: if not God, then love; if not love, then nature, birds--anything that would assure listeners that life isn't nearly as stark, dark, and directionless as the one Rennie describes in the Handsome Family's doom 'n' gloom world. Brett never gets an answer, but who ever does on such matters? The most we can ask out of life is to have an album as hauntingly touching as Twilight, an album so macabre in its implications that it can't help but remind us that, if nothing else, we're not dead yet. Jimmy Draper
Rough Guide to Music
Husband and wife duo Rennie and Brett Sparks' five
years as the Handsome Family have produced a string of
fine albums. And this collection of eerie country is no
exception. Musically the set has a sparse country feel
based around acoustic guitars, yet each song's distinctive
feel is influenced by the particular instrument aligned to it:
Theremins wail, tubas provide resonant rhythm and harmonicas anchor the
cuts in rural America. However, it is through the lyrics where the archaic and
the modern clash that the Handsome Family rise above their contemporaries.
Dissolved relationships allow protagonists time to bemoan the loss of a billion
passenger pigeons. Elsewhere deaf old women argue loudly in diners and
blind men hear angels in potatoes. Despite the odd subject matter, this subtle
album never sounds contrived these really are the concerns of this pair. They
mean this stuff!
Uncut Magazine, October 2001, Album of the Month.
by Rob Hughes
A Handful of Dusk
Call it what you will--proto-country, Southern Gothic, backwoods noir, Americana, cow-punk, insurgent twang, murderous balladry, Appalachian folk. Whichever way you slice it, The Handsome Family--aka Brett and Rennie Sparks--are too dazzlingly unique to nail down. Many pale moons since, when I first asked Brett to define their slippery singularity, he offered up: "George Jones shares a veggie burger with Jim Morrison at McDonald's, where their order is taken by Jerry Lewis. The chef is Franz Kafka. The background muzak is Mahler's Symphony No. 1." These days, they've acquired a confidence and quietly unsettling swagger that suggests Sinatra's fixing milkshakes in the back, while Dean Martin slugs cheap snorts of bourbon at the drive-thru. But "Songs For Swinging Lovers" this ain't.
Recorded while they prepared to move from Chicago, their home for the last 12 years, to the desert near Albuquerque, "Twilight" bids good riddance to the rank ugliness and urban decay of the metropolis, contrasting the suffocating, dollar-grubby straitjacket with the fleeting, unexpected bursts of natural beauty occasionally pricking through.
On the surface, more measured and ruminative then previous album "In The Air," and less downright otherworldly than 1998's "Through the Trees ("Uncut's" Americana album of that year), its themes of eerie strangeness nevertheless rattle throughout like the bones of dead crows. Brett's deep-bellied baritone grows riper and more tensile with time, ranging from astonishingly subtle elasticity (dreamy, tar-black lullaby "Passenger Pigeons") to hellfire bullishness (toe-tappin' juggernaut" Cold, Cold, Cold")--proof, if it were needed, of the true presence of a modern-day giant.
Lyrically, wife Rennie hits paydirt, too, poring over the bloodied glass shards of life's intimate details, zigzagging the tightrope between gravity's earthly pull and the unbearable lightness of being. Try staying dry-eyed in the face of "There is A Sound" ("Like breaking glass when water falls on dying grass/There is a sound sung by the sea and plastic bags caught in trees/ There is a sound old buildings cry right before the morning light/The quiet sound that's left behind when airplanes fall from the sky") or remain unruffled at the blind protagonist of "Gravity", who hears angels, "whispering inside potatoes and from the curling leaves of blooming plants").
The latter--inspired by George Washington Carver, who claimed he came up with the idea of peanut butter after he was shown by angels how to harvest peanuts fit for human consumption--taps into the urban myth of US folk hero Johnny Appleseed, who, as Rennie explains to Uncut, "spent his life walking the entire country, supposedly walking barefoot with only the clothes on his back, a frying pan on his head and bag full of apple seeds. He had a vision that apples were a divine gift from God and if he could plant apple trees everywhere in America then no one would ever go hungry. Anyway, to this day, there are still lots and lots of apple trees that he planted over a hundred years ago all over America...Johnny Appleseed was a mystic, a person half here and half in another world."
Metaphors abound. The Handsomes' perennials--birds--are everywhere. For Brett and Rennie, they embody all the paradoxical beauty and cruelty of life--roadkill scavengers with the gift of soaraway escape. No coincidence either, that the CD cover--breaking the run of wide-open-wilderness panoramics that adorned their previous two outings-juxtaposes a claustrophobic thicket of forest with a back-cover shot of similarly-clustered electricity pylons.
And the music? Opener "Snow White Diner" is simply one of the best things they've ever written, all rumbling menace and flashing piano breaks unveiling the drama of a suicide as a car is dredge up from a frozen lake. "A Dark Eye" is a sparkling bluegrass diamond pitted against Brett's fathomless tenor, the sublime balladry of "There is A Sound" unwinds over a delicious melodica solo; "All the Tvs in Town" flexes its muscles with the fieriest banjo twang this side of Johnny Cash; "Gravity" is spooked with the ghostly shiver of a digital Theramin (actually a cheap Roland synth-box); "I Know You Are There" (Rennie's attempt to make peace with her own ghosts) chugs like an ominous black train; "White Dog" scowls with a viperish guitar solo. And who else would close out with "Peace in the Valley Once Again", the apocalyptic triumph of wild animals storming the aisles of the last shopping mall on Earth, when plastic mannequins' eyes are "carried off by wild boars" and mirrors shatter "when wild horses gallop past"?
Dark, dense, terrifying, invigorating--Rennie believes "if you are going to believe that there is some inherent order to the universe, you have to accept that this order includes not only rainbows and kittens but also gas chambers and the black death"--"Twilight" reaffirms The Handsome Family's position atop the poisonous spire of alt. country's twisted high tower. At LA's recent Harry Smith Symposium, Greil marcus proclaimed them "The Beatles of folk music". Right now, there's no one better equipped to carry that weight.
by Novy Ann
The Handsome Family
Carrot Top Records, Inc.
Spiraling upwards and then dropping straight down to uneasy depths, The Handsome Family deliver yet another phenomenal CD, "Twilight", 13 tracks of darkly descriptive tales. Originally rooted in Chicago and very recently transplanted to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the core unit of this group are the husband and wife duo Rennie Sparks and Brett Sparks. It is my opinion that Rennie Sparks has the pen of a black-winged angel and Brett Sparks has the voice of a God. Brett brings his wife's lyrics brilliantly to life, so much so, that the pain in his voice can be seen dripping from the speakers. These songs might make most people squirm once they register what's going on within the hypnotic lyrics. Despite a humble, but zealous cult following in the US, they have received winning accolades throughout Europe, most notably from the UK and Ireland. Backed by a drum machine and recorded in their living room, the music is flowing and beautiful in it's endearing simplicity. Acoustic, autoharp, bass, some piano, melodica, and a sawblade carefully sculpt a masterpiece of sound. It is this simplicity that often finds the band labeled as a folk unit. There is nothing negative about this, but they are so much more than that. They cannot fit into one category, they are so unique. Their songs center around a variety of subjects, albeit dark ones. "The Snow White Diner" paints one story of a woman who straps her kids into the car and drives them into the water because she was too poor to feed them. (Yes, it does sound somewhat familiar). "I know You Are There" has a sweet hymn-like quality. Observations on nature produce goose-bumps in "Birds You Cannot See" and "The White Dog". "So Long" which contains the unsettling line: "So long to whatever was inside that hole I bricked over..." A morbidly witty paean to lost pets. It will make you laugh again and again, but you will feel guilty afterwards. As an aside, Rennie Sparks has published a book of her short stories entitled "Evil Stories". It's fabulously sick and twisted. Rennie Sparks possesses a curious mind I would be hesitant to enter.
By Kevin Bicknell
The Handsome Family's music is like the peeling wallpaper of Barton Fink's hotel room. Their version of the past is an endless rot that permeates the present. When songwriter Rennie Sparks laments the extinction of the passenger pigeons, it's as a metaphor for the death of a love affair, for the death of love itself. If her lyrics connect extensively with a history of droughts, depressions and epidemics (if there's ever a musical version of "Wisconsin Death Trip" ... ) they also sound completely contemporary. Certainly after September 11, lyrics like "the quiet sound that's left behind/when airplanes fall from the sky" are especially chilling, but that chill is built into the band's vision of mordant stoicism in the face of eternal catastrophe.
The band's five albums are all of a piece, but their latest, "Twilight," features a new level of assurance. Rennie's husband Bret does most of the band's singing and his voice has deepened slightly; more than ever, he sounds like he's not just singing, but inhabiting the songs.
"Twilight" also offers a slight melodic shift from folk and bluegrass fatalism to more stately parlor music. "I Know You Are There" brings to mind Stephen Foster - that is, if Foster had written lines like "When the rope of death strangles/and dark waters roar and foam/when fear and trembling hod me/and the slimy pit pulls down."
And there's a strain of dark humor in "So Long," an elegy for a lifetime's worth of dead animals ("So long to my dog Snickers who ate Christmas tinsel ..."), as well as in "Peace in the Valley Once Again," in which the wilderness reclaims an abandoned shopping mall. (It's like an answer song to the Talking Heads "Nothing But Flowers.")
The Sparks' relationship to Americana is not unlike David Lynch's to film noir. They are all artists who try to explode their genre, make it give up more terrible secrets than it ever has before. At the same time there's a level of ironic distance that makes their dark vision easer to look at. It's almost enough to give self-conscious artiness a good name.
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