In 1998, after two albums on which ever-growing songwriting power struggled against uncertain arrangements, the Handsome Family (then a Chicago band, just recently pared down to the duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks) dropped Through the Trees, and at once all the components of their genius seemed to fall into place. They’ve been unstoppable ever since. You don’t go to them for startling sonic innovation: the songs are still confined to a spectrum of gray, and Brett still lopes along in his deep and deadpan drone like a dour spawn of Johnny Cash and Nick Cave, his clear enunciation revealing a sort of ascetic tenderness for lyricist Rennie’s morbidly fantastical narratives. Their sound is instantly recognizable (and their songs almost so when covered by others), and on their new Singing Bones (Carrot Top) they manage to keep their stock-in-trade supernaturalism just this side of self-parody. The duo relocated to Albuquerque a few years back, so rather than endure the claustrophobia of an apartment, death and the dead now stir about under the big desert sky and in quiet, lonely places. The ghosts who haunt the “24-Hour Store” are so much more vividly drawn than the people who “push their squeaking carts / Down the rows of clothes / And see nothing at all” that eventually you become more comfortable with the ghosts. The very starkness of the landscape begins to feel populated, almost welcoming (even as the thereminlike musical-saw haunted-house effects evoke chuckles). Besides the apocalyptic a cappella hymns “If the World Should End in Fire” and “If the World Should End in Ice,” where they really cut loose is on a foot-stomping version of the traditional “Dry Bones” (based on Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s version, found on the Anthology of American Folk Music). It fits on the album so well they could have written it–as songwriters it’s the eerie, ancestral voice of Anonymous they ultimately resemble the most. Friday, October 17, 7 PM, and Saturday, October 18, 10 PM, Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace; 773-478-4408.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ted Jurney.