The Handsome Family (Contemporary Musicians)
Post-modern country duo
While the Handsome Family does take musical cues from the likes of Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt, and even from deeper sources such as the Carter Family, they take the tradition a step further, developing a post-modern country sound that blends memorable melodies, deadpan vocals, waves of feedback, and surrealistic lyrics. But because of Handsome Family's fondness for poetry and the traditional melodies of American music past, as well as their link to the independent rock social sphere, the husband and wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks often find themselves lumped into the alternative country movement. However, the Handsome Family tries to distance themselves from such labels, ignoring the pressure to find a singular stylistic niche or specific audience. Both country train beats and distorted guitars figure into their overall sound, yet the duo's aesthetic differs from many of their indie counterparts.
Unlike other alternative country outfits who can come across sounding too contrived and shallow, the Handsome Family successfully straddled the line between tribute and parody, appropriately incorporating the traditions of rural music to tell stories of alienated urbanites and college-educated hipsters without sounding campy. Beginning with their 1996 second album entitled Milk and Scissors and continuing through their 2000 release In the Air, considered the couple's most melodic and focused work, the Sparks earned heaps of acclaim for breathing new life into the alternative country genre. "Some of the greatest songs in the world in the past few years have been written by the Handsome Family," asserted Randall Roberts in the Riverfront Times.
Their songs have a distinct Folkways feel, but Rennie, who writes the words and plays bass and autoharp, never shies away from the essential bittersweetness of life, revealing emotional complexities such as murder and love, fear and contentment, and despair and joy through Brett's deep, rumbling delivery. She writes about some of the darkest subjects possible, from the universal allure of suicide to her husband's confinement to a mental institution. "Here in the bipolar ward, if you shower you get a gold star," he sings in "My Ghost," the most harrowing track on 1998's Through the Trees, "But I'm not going far till the Haldon kicks in."
Handsome Family came about when, after moving to Chicago, Brett, a guitarist from Texas, had no one to form a band with. Thus, he asked Rennie, who grew up on Long Island in New York, to take time off from her fiction writing to explore the idea of penning lyrics for his musical compositions. Initially, the married couple's pairing resulted in extraordinary pieces of surreal poetry set to typical indie-style guitar rock. Their 1995 debut album, Odessa, as well as their early live act seemed blurred and uneven. During a usual show, Brett expressed moments of emotional breakdown, while Rennie would perform a sort of stand-up routine in between songs. "We were genuinely hilarious because we were so bad.... I think people thought of us as a comedy act," admitted Rennie in an interview with Phil Sheridan of Magnet magazine.
By the recording of the second album, 1996's Milk and Scissors, the Handsome Family had incorporated traditional country influences into their music and started to gain media attention. 'Their music is both rootsy and thoroughly unhinged," concluded Men's Journal reviewer Anthony DeCurtis, "as if the Velvet Underground had come of age in the Ozarks." Additionally, Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden, co-editors of No Depression, named the record one of the top ten albums of the year, while Esquire named the song "Drunk By Noon" off Milk and Scissors the "Dissipation Song of 1996." In support of the album, the Handsome Family toured throughout the United States with the alt-country group Wilco, then traveled to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Along the way, the Handsome Family stopped in Great Britain, where John Peel featured the group on BBC radio.
Subsequently, drummer Mike Werner departed the Handsome Family. Rather than hiring a new member, Brett and Rennie instead purchased a drum machine. They have remained a duo ever since, and all of their records have been made at home in the couple's living room, which they regularly turned into a make-shift recording studio. The third Handsome Family full-length CD, 1998's Through the Trees, won even more praise and worldwide exposure, enabling Brett and Rennie to quit their day jobs. Astoundingly, the album was made during some of the couple's most difficult times, personally. "It's probably the darkest record we've made," Brett informed Sheridan. 'That was right after I got out of the nuthouse and I was dealing with the chemicals, with quitting drinking, with struggling with not knowing if I could write in that medicated state. We didn't think anyone would like it, and it ended up on a lot of critics' end-of-the-year lists."
With this outing, which featured guest guitarist Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, the couple expanded the standard guitar, bass, and drums sound to include a broader range of instrumentation and musical arrangementofter guitars and more melodies, autoharp, banjo, dobro, violin, bass, piano, and an unobtrusive drum machineo complement Brett's sturdy, baritone vocals. Critics marveled at the Handsome Family's ability to meld standard country music with slightly twangy, subdued rock, as well as Rennie's penchant for writing stunningly direct lyrics that drew poetic comparisons to the likes of Robert Frost and Raymond Carver.
"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 objects of natureike pine cones or something," concluded Salon magazine's Randall Roberts. "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 woodsr sometimes, through the streets of Chicago."
Audiences and reviewers likewise took note of the Handsome Family's improved stage presence. "Brett Sparks' baritone voice boomed with an authority that seemed larger than the room, and the musiceliberately paced and mesmerizing in its sad beautyccrued power with each tale," wrote Greg Kot in a performance review for the Chicago Tribune. "As Brett's voice rose and fell, Rennie closed her eyes, the music swallowing up both of them, and the audience with it." In addition to playing clubs in their hometown, the Handsome Family played in cities across United States, alone and with the Mekons. Then, they toured the United Kingdom to promote their new record, making side trips to Holland, Norway, and Belgium. In England, Uncut named Through the Trees the "Best New Country Album of the Year," while back in the States, Kot called the album one the year's ten best worldwide and the number one release from a Chicago band. Another local critic, Chicago Sun-Times music writer Jim DeRogatis, hailed the work as one of the most important albums to have ever come out of Chicago.
After working through Brett's recovery to find a sense of happiness and maturity, as well as critical approval, the Handsome Family arrived in early 2000 with another success, In the Air, recorded again in their living room. All of the sounds were captured on a Macintosh G3 computer, rather than a tape machine, a production technique that astounded many given the album's rich and varied textures. "I took my time with it," Brett told Sheridan. 'That's the most important thing: time. The reason I could work on those harmonies or think about different instrumentation was that I worked on this at home. The editing capabilities are really powerful. I used the virtual mixing board inside the Mac with the software. You could make a really digital, brittle, sh***y-sounding record if you aren't careful."
The pair also replaced their trusty drum machine for In the Air with Brett on cymbals, snare drums, tambourines, and even a plastic garbage pail. In addition to guitar, the Handsome Family continued to incorporate lush instrumentation with autoharp, mandolin, melodica, and harmonica, also adding church choirs, horns, and pipe organs into the mix. Guest musician Andrew Bird contributed his talents on violin. Again, the Handsome Family won rave responses for the album, with "Lie Down," about a clamdigger lured to his death by the sea, standing as In the Ail's most memorable track. "Unlike some of its faux-depression, alt-country counterparts, this Chicago duo doesn't over-emote," concluded Rolling Stone's Kembrew McLeod. "But when Brett spins a tale about a moon that could not care less and a crowd that throws bottles at a stupid, hopeless romantic, you feel his pain."
Odessa, Carrot Top, February 1995.
Milk and Scissors, Carrot Top, May 1996.
Invisible Hands (vinyl-only, six-song EP), Carrot Top, August 1997.
Through the Trees, Carrot Top, January 1998.
Down in the Valley (anthology of previous albums), Independent (Europe), November 1999.
In the Air, Carrot Top, February 2000.
For a Life of Sin, contributed "Moving Furniture Around," Bloodshot, June 1994.
Straight Outta Boone County, contributed "Barbara Allen," Bloodshot, March 1997.
New Sounds of the Old West, contributed "Moving Furniture Around," Loose, February 1998.
Poor Little Knitter on the Road, contributed 'Trail of Time," Bloodshot, October 1999.
Chicago Tribune, February 3, 1998.
Guitar Player, May 2000.
Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2000.
Magnet, June/July 2000.
Men's Journal, September 1996.
Riverfront Times (St. Louis, MO), October 1997.
Rolling Stone, April 13, 2000.
Salon, March 1998.
San Francisco Weekly, November 1996.
Village Voice, February 29, 2000; May 2, 2000.
Official Handsome Family Website, http://www.handsomefamily.home.mindspring.com (August 15, 2000).