Handsome Family is the project of baritone Brett Sparks and writer
(and wife) Rennie Sparks. Out of Chicago, they play solemn alt-country
infused with a cruel sense of urban alienation.
Odessa (Carrot Top, 1994) is mainly a collection of quiet, stark, gloomy
ballads (Arlene, Happy Harvest)
but the trio can crank up the noise as it does in
Big Bad Wolf and Pony.
The mood of the album mirrors Brett Sparks' manic depression, that would
eventually earn him a nervous breakdown.
Milk And Scissors (Carrot Top, 1996) marked a major step forward, as the
fully-recovered songwriter became more confident and the music paid its debt to
Leonard Cohen (Lake Geneva) and Neil Young (Winnebago Skeletons).
Their skills are best displayed in the parables of
Drunk By Noon,
Dutch Boy and the biographical sketch Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear.
The EP Invisible Hands (Carrot Top, 1997) contains
the unusually optimistic Grandmother Waits For You.
The standout tracks of Through the Trees (Carrot Top, 1998), such as
Giant Of Illinois (another biographical tribute), Weightless, Woman Downstairs,
Down In The Valley of Hollow Logs,
Last Night I Went Out Walking, have an almost visionary quality.
While the musical skills are not improving, the storytelling
is more twisted and haunting than ever.
Sparks inhabits a nightmare that only he can decipher.
The couple reached their "literary" peak with the dark, obsessive vignettes of
In the Air (Carrot Top, 1999), stories of devastation that recall the
southern gothic of Faulkner
(My Beautiful Bride, Up Falling Rock Hill) and stories of
ordinary lives ruined by Life (In the Air).
Occasionally (The Sad Milkman, Don't Be Scared)
the latter can be "grand" in an epic while subdued manner.
The couple has mastered their technique of quiet, nebulous arrangements
(the accordion-tinted Poor Poor Lenore,
the violin-based elegy Up Falling Rock Hill) that achieve the most
from the least.
Down In The Valley (Loose, 2000) is an anthology.
Twilight (Carrot Top, 2001) is almost as accomplished as
In the Air, just a little more predictable.
Rennie Sparks' fairy tales are still mesmerizing, set to
the old-fashioned flavor of campfire country & western.
While not as innovative as its predecessor, this album may have more gems
(The Snow White Diner, Passenger Pigeons,
A Dark Eye) than any other
Handsome Family album.
The closing Peace In The Valley Once Again evokes a
dreadful calm after the emotional storm of so many tragedies.
Smothered and Covered (2002) collects rarities.
Singing Bones (Carrot Top, 2003) continues to offer more professional
and atmospheric songs without changing the fundamentals of the couple's music
(Far From Any Road, 24-Hour Store, The Bottomless Hole,
Gail with the Golden Hair).
Last Days Of Wonder (Carrot Top, 2006) does not succeed because
the lyrics of a three-minute song are neither Shakespeare verses nor Henry James
novels: the vocal harmonies or the accompanying music have to be more than
Appalachian folk music in order to make them interesting.
That said, the couple's stories are indeed a notch above the average of folk
and rock music.
Tesla's Hotel Room is a nice addition to their gallery of portraits,
and After We Shot the Grizzly is the kind of small-time tragedy they
Honey Moon (Carrot Top, 2009) contains a cycle of love songs to commemorate the couple's 20 years of marriage. The music is a nostalgic merry-go-round
of old-fashioned romantic styles of the 1950s, notably
Linger Let Me Linger and My Friend.
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