Handsome Family, Chicago Reader
July 12, 2013
By: Peter Margasak

On Wilderness (Carrot Top), the fantastic new album from former Chicagoans the Handsome Family, Rennie Sparks juxtaposes the turbulent and ever-changing human world with the relative immutability of nature—she’s named all 12 songs after animals or insects, but she uses metaphor to deliver compelling observations of the human condition. As usual her lyrics are more like prose poems or short stories in verse, and right from the album’s opening lines her mastery of language is on display as she describes the death of General George Custer: “Yes, there in Montana prairie grass the Sioux shot Custer down / His red scarf tied, his black boots shined / How beautiful he looked to the flies, the happy kingdom of flies.” I don’t know of anyone so good at making powerful commentary by blending bits of obscure history (whether about notorious Wisconsin window-smashing basket case Mary Sweeney or the ignominious end of composer Stephen Foster) with fanciful myths about nature (the notion that an octopus waves its tentacles to hypnotize schools of fish). Sparks is accompanied by a rich blend of various strains of Americana played and sung by her husband, Brett, who expands from his bedrock of the Carter Family and Hank Williams to push into Neil Young territory (“Frogs”) and play a bit with bossa nova (“Caterpillars”). His wonderfully lugubrious delivery, with its blend of stoicism and wit, gives the songs an extra gravity.


Rennie's article for NEW YORK TIMES about new song, "Woodpecker"



Robert Christgau's Review

The Handsome Family: Wilderness (Carrot Top)

Since each of the 12 songs is named after an animal‑-including just one mammal, and a wildebeest at that‑-you expect a zoological concept album. In fact, however, the title creatures all have walk-ons, fly-ons, swim-ons, or crawl-ons, even the conquering flies who think General Custer looks so "beautiful" dead. Yet the only true ringer is a magic lizard whose bite requires a witchcraft cure‑-in all the rest, the animals are intimates of a natural world humans navigate clumsily and uncomprehendingly except in "Frogs," where the housebound are bidden to tromp down through the mud and hear their amphibian song. As always, the tales are Rennie Sparks's, the teller her dour husband Brett, and the tales themselves are why you first listen. But these are so fine you don't mind listening again. And as you do, you start noticing how deftly Brett negotiates lines and stanzas that aren't as blockish as their meter and his voice make you think. And then you listen to this uningratiating music some more. A MINUS



Wild animals, tall tales, and folk-lore from American history populate Wilderness - the 9th studio album from New Mexico's Handsome Family. Recorded at home in Albuquerque and at the Wilco Loft in Chicago it's a record that finds husband & wife duo Brett & Rennie Sparks blending Appalachian holler, psych-rock and Tin Pan Alley inspired melodies to conjure up a world where David Attenborough meets David Lynch in a Honky-Tonk bar at midnight. 

The album explores the little-known enigmas of the natural world: immortal jellyfish, woodpecker tongues, dancing octopi, fly royalty, the secret language of crows, and mysterious ant spirals. Elsewhere we discover why the Sparks never take seaside vacations and learn all about compulsive window-smasher Mary Sweeney. It's classic Handsome Family territory - twisted tales of the unexpected that may raise a smile but will also, thanks to Rennie's knack for spinning a good yarn, leave you ever so slightly unsettled. But it's not only the narrative that draws you deep into this zoological wonderland.  From the opening bars of Flies to the album's closer Wildebeest - a parlour-piano led hymn that somehow successfully manages to bring together Stephen Foster, hungry crocodiles and the unity of the wildebeest herd, Brett Sparks lays bear a succession of deceptively simple melodies and dexterous instrumentation that combine with his wife's lyrics to a startlingly haunting effect and are delivered with a voice that glides between a Cash-like timbre and a southern high & lonesome plea.

And what songs they are. They have been feted by the likes of Ringo Starr and covered by artists such as Jeff Tweedy, Cerys Matthews, Christy Moore and Andrew Bird. In a career that spans twenty years they've toured the world in their own charmingly DIY fashion - one car, one hotel room, one stage.... night after night after night - and in that time they've performed as a duo, with a band and have had onstage collaborations with such folk-royalty as Eliza Carthy, country legend Charlie Louvin and indie-kings like Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker. In each and every instance they've more than held their own, thanks in the main to their songs - a series of unique and wondrous compositions that, as Jeff Tweedy once said, are the "product of two beautiful brains".

Album review: The Handsome Family, Wilderness (Loose)

4 stars

A sort of bestiary of myth, legend and animal analogy, Wilderness uses wildlife traits as jumping-off points for enigmatic tales in typical Handsome Family manner.

In “Caterpillars”, a woman hit by lightning gets cocooned by caterpillars; in “Flies”, as General Custer's body stains the earth blood-red, Brett Sparks muses on “how beautiful he looked to the flies”, his morbid baritone swathed in groaning harmonium. From one man convinced that owls are stealing his pills, to another sure octopuses are trying to lure him into the water, it's nature at its creepy-crawliest, with fittingly wyrd-folk arrangements.


Two decades and nine studio albums into a career, most bands could be expected to run out of surprises. But the Handsome Family just keep on throwing curves and change-ups.

The duo’s latest release, “Wilderness” (Carrot Top), includes what at first glance appears to be a series of twisted takes on the animal kingdom. But nothing is ever quite that simple or obvious in the music of husband-and-wife songwriters Brett and Rennie Sparks. Fairly benign song titles – “Flies,” “Owls,” “Woodpecker” – are merely doorways into worlds shaped by dreams, folk tales, science fiction and the couple’s wicked imaginations.

“Glow Worm,” the album’s centerpiece, is unlike anything the Handsome Family has attempted before, a mix of progressive rock and Jules Verne. Rennie’s lyrics describe a journey to the center of the earth, the captain traveling “a boiling river through streams of mercury” toward his mad destiny. Brett casts the tale in epic colors, with a wordless baritone choir, strings and the kind of instrumental virtuosity you might expect to hear on a side-long Yes opus.

“There is a bass part that I would never put on a record, but I have this friend Ted Jurney who is the busiest bass player in the world and I told him, ‘Play as excessively as you can,” Brett says with a laugh. “For the kind of person who would get to the center of the earth and want to touch it, grab it – that demands a certain excess. But he’s also flawed, weak, like the narrative voice in (David Bowie’s) ‘Space Oddity.’ ”

“There may not be a return to this journey, but he’s delusional,” Rennie adds, referring to the song’s protagonist, not her husband.

The two have been collaborating on more than just music since the early ‘90s. They finish each other’s sentences in interviews and their on-stage banter would be fodder for an excellent comedy album. An accomplished writer, Rennie built the songs from a series of essays collected in a picture book, also entitled “Wilderness” – a mix of zoological and historical research, folklore and metaphor.

“Songs allow you to talk about the same subjects you’d write about in an essay in a different way,” she says. “It’s the language of dreams.”

Once she finishes the lyrics, Brett gets to work on the music in their home studio in Albuquerque, N.M. “Sometimes, the lyrics are so suggestive of what the music should be, the main job is to avoid the obvious,” he says. “With ‘Octopus,’ it had to be a George Formby slash Queen seaside rendezvous mixed in with a Beatles shuffle – it was just so irresistible you have to do it. I read the first line of ‘Owls’ and it made me think of a slow George Jones song, like the ‘Grand Tour.’ The way I think about things is not ‘A minor’ or ‘the key of C.’ I think about the container the lyrics are going to live in, what world the lyrics are going to inhabit, and what they’re asking for.”

Rennie gets her say after Brett puts the track together. “I have an idea in my head of how it should go,” she says, “but he comes back with something way better.”

“There is very little leakage between our two jobs,” Brett says. “I used to question her lyrics a lot, and lot of those times I was wrong. I don’t really mess with her – she knows what she’s doing.”

Subtle tweaks sometimes make a good song even better, though. “With ‘Octopus,’ I liked the idea, the way it was evocative of the English seaside,” Rennie says. “But I also wanted to hear the octopus, get a high-pitched noise in there. And Brett found me a noise that sounded like the octopus.”

“A theremin – gives it more of a nautical feel,” he says.

Of such give-and-take are great albums made, and “Wilderness” is one of the best in a career marked by remarkable consistency and evolving inventiveness.

“A concept album? I think of them all that way,” Rennie says. “All of the songs live in the same forest. They should be heard together. But the part of your brain that groups by themes is not the part that’s doing the writing. I didn’t think about the album opening with a song about (U.S. Army officer George) Custer (‘Flies’) and ending with a song about (American songwriter) Stephen Foster (‘Wildebeest’). Afterward, you realize they’re heroes with tragic flaws from a similar time period who meet untimely ends. They’re good bookends.”