Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Handsome Family - Two Spooks in the Grocery Store

"The Coyote's Secret"

"The Wolf's Secret"
The above paintings are those of Rennie Sparks, one half of the Handsome duo, she having no beard.

The listening of them, at first rate anyway, brings no sudden shocks, no hidden terrors. Then the lyrics begin to permeate. Slowly at first sinking through the sludge to embed themselves firmly within your mind. These are not songs quite like you thought they might be. They are a bit twisted, if not sometimes sinister.
"Your fan of golden hair oiled with rose and cinnamon
As your blood bloomed poppy red across your velvet coat
Your deep blue velvet coat
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

Dear Custer there’s a Wal-Mart now where once the grizzlies roamed
Mountains of hair spray and cowboy shirts and everyone has a gun
Everyone still has a gun
But high in the rafters above the lights, red finches, they hide their nests
And when our cars drive out of sight they sing symphonies across the night
In their forest of heating pipes

And out past the parking lot along the curb in the wilds of weed and trash
Great armies of the smallest ants fight battles for the glory of their queen
Such a tiny glorious queen
But even the empress of the ants for whom ten thousand fall
Makes not a sound beneath the blades of our great empire of lawns
How quiet is the empire of lawns"
Sounding vaguely like Johnny Cash, all male baritone, Brett Sparks, husband to band mate Rennie, gives cause to think upon first hearing him, and indeed them, that here is yet another country band. All steel guitars and sweet melodies. And yes, there is that but how many bands you know off sing songs about large holes outside your house that, upon closer inspection, go so deep into the ground that when you, armed with an old bath tub, miles of rope and a sharp knife, enter that hole ride down and down into the stygian depths, the very bowels of this planet to find the hole has no end? Not many I venture.
Formed in 1993 after Brett and Rennie met the couple went on to record a number of albums. My personal favourite being 2003's "Singing Bones." The band carrying the traditions of country, bluegrass and American Folk to new heights, or should that be depths?
There is no conformity even if distilled into their songs is a history rich and old. No, this may carrying that tradition proudly if not slavishly. They have managed to take from the old to furnish the new and yet they still sound, without paying full attention to what's being sung, ancient. A weird paradox.
Rennie's lyrics are branch bared tokens of gothic, of American mythology and sometimes of murder. Ripe with a sense of the macabre as though Edgar Allen Poe had assisted with the writing of them.
"From the dusty mesa
Her looming shadow grows
Hidden in the branches
Of the poison creosote
She twines her spines up slowly
Towards the boiling sun
And when I touched her skin
My fingers ran with blood
In the hushing dusk
Under a swollen silver moon
I came walking with the wind
To watch the cactus bloom
A strange hunger haunted me
The looming shadows danced
I fell down to the thorny brush
And felt a trembling hand
When the last light warms the rocks
And the rattlesnakes unfold
Mountain cats will come
To drag away your bones
Then rise with me forever
Across the silent sands
And the stars will be your eyes
And the wind will be my hands"
Rennie's songs have a poetic quality to them. Often dark, seldom happy-go-lucky. Murder ballads and songs of yearning. More stories than songs as so often they led the listener down calamitous paths. They are a concoction of the surreal but have the ability to haunt your thoughts long after you have stopped listening.
The sound, the fiddles, the guitars and the banjo's, all are played as though by a death watch troupe of southern farmers condemned to live out eternity playing songs for passing strangers as much to please them as petrify them. The years come and ago. Pale dawns led to dark dusks as shadows drift in long, thin lines across the cold horizon. Dew drops gather upon frost grey branches dripping blood. The Handsome Family are like no other country band.

"When you’ve been called “the Gomez and Morticia Adams of country music” enough times, you will fucking take off your little gothic cowboy hat." - Brett Sparks
There is a serious sense of disconnect inherent in their music. Almost as though having recognised the speedy race toward modernity the Handsome Family, not unaccepting of new technologies it has to be said, are applying not so much the brakes but a sense of proportion. They are suggesting that the old ways sit perfectly well with the new but in seeking the new we should not neglect the old. That the new should be constrained to suit the lifestyles of modern life yet still exist in a world that is green, covered in vegetation and vast amounts of water.
Their songs contain a haunted, retrospective feel of loss, of yearning and of dark romances. They really are a band unto themselves.
Brett Sparks is one hundred and thirty five his wife, Rennie, is a little younger.  Both were born in Meigis County in eighteen eighty.

The above paintings were painted by Rennie in nineteen seventeen during the time of the Great War.

Have faith.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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