Handsome Family Hits the Road

Last year, when Brett and Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family started thinking about buying a house, it wasn’t out of your typical nesting impulse. “We would only be in Chicago a few months a year because we were on tour so much,” says Brett. “But we were spending a grand a month, renting a place where we didn’t really live.” So they began searching for a small three-bedroom home–and some six months later realized there was nothing within their budget that they’d want to own. “I already played fucking urban pioneer one time, and I didn’t feel like doing it again,” says Brett.

He’d grown up in New Mexico and gone to college in Albuquerque, so “just out of curiosity we searched for homes in Albuquerque that were under $150,000 with a certain square footage, and we found hundreds.” Suddenly, returning to the desert seemed inescapable. “I never really felt at home in the midwest, and I always longed to come back,” says Brett from the couple’s 1940s pueblo-style house in downtown Albuquerque, just ten minutes from the desert and half an hour from the mountains. “I missed nature, the weather, my brother, my parents…this is home.”

Rennie grew up in New York State, but she felt drawn to New Mexico as well. “I tell everybody the reason I decided to move was one night I was getting out of my car in Wicker Park, and walking to my apartment I saw this rat run across the street,” she says. “Instead of the usual, ‘Eww, rat’ feeling, I said, ‘Oh, it’s an animal.’ I wanted to cuddle it to my breast. I felt like Chicago was poisoning me after a while. I felt really nervous walking around, the traffic bothered me, the crowds bothered me. I just longed for some trees.”

Before vacating their cavernous Wicker Park loft in June, the couple finished their fifth album, Twilight, for Chicago’s Carrot Top label. Like the previous two, it was recorded entirely on a Macintosh G3. “I was definitely thinking that this would probably be the last record I would make in Chicago, and I wanted to write about things that made it a great place to live,” says Rennie, whose lyrics Brett sets to music and sings. “The Snow White Diner” is actually set in the greasy spoon that used to be at Clark and Wrightwood, but many of the songs are less narrative and more impressionistic than usual. For instance: “You can’t see the stars above the city skyline, but sometimes the air shines like gold under the yellow streetlights,” Brett sings in “All the TVs in Town.” Rennie explains, “I started looking at streetlights as if they were stars. I’d be walking down the street and I’d look up at a streetlight and think, ‘Oh, that’s so pretty.’ You replace what you’re missing in the natural world with new objects.”

Though they’re still no Up With People, on Twilight the Sparkses continue a progression away from the dark mood of the band’s breakthrough third album, Through the Trees. They attribute this in part to drugs–specifically the ones Brett takes to combat bipolar disorder and the ones Rennie takes for depression. “There are things that, if not more positive, at least show more resolve or acceptance,” says Brett. “I hope so,” Rennie chimes in. “I paid a lot for these pills.” In “I Know You Are There,” the singer, sinking into depths of despair rendered in near purple poetry, seems to find solace in the title sentiment–though it’s not clear if the other person is “there” in the sense of standing by him or “there” in the sense of suffering in the muck alongside him. And in “So Long” Rennie’s characteristic morbidity takes a sweet turn, as the singer bids farewell to a long list of pets who’ve met untimely ends (“So long to my dog Snickers who ate Christmas tinsel”) and promises to see them on the other side.

Fittingly, the album closes with “Peace in the Valley Once Again,” a song about nature reclaiming an abandoned shopping mall: “Cash machines sprouted weeds / Lizards crawled the parking lot / Swallows flew the empty shops / And there was peace in the valley again.” The Sparkses haven’t escaped the city quite so completely in their new home, but it’s a start: “In the Wal-Mart parking lot here,” says Rennie, “you can see where the town ends and where the desert begins.”

Twilight arrives in stores on September 24. The Handsome Family will return to Chicago to play the Old Town School of Folk Music on December 8.

Champaign Pop Uncorked

In the late 80s downstate Champaign was something of a mecca for jangle pop, with post-R.E.M. guitar bands sprouting up like so many cornstalks. Perhaps the truest believer of the bunch was drummer Ric Menck, who played in an endless shuffle of short-term projects, including the Springfields, Choo Choo Train, and Bag o’ Shells. Some of those bands included Evanston native Paul Chastain, who’d previously indulged his sweet tooth in a twee duo called the Reverbs. By the end of the decade the pair had relocated to Providence, Rhode Island, where they started their best and longest-running band, the retro but insanely catchy Velvet Crush. Their most recent album is Free Expression, released by the Aurora-based Bobsled label in 1999; coproduced by Matthew Sweet, who also lends a hand on guitar, it’s as fine a document as any of Chastain’s dreamy power-pop hooks and Menck’s Ringo-esque swing.

Next week the group will reissue some out-of-print early work on their own Action Musik imprint, manufactured and distributed by Champaign’s Parasol Records. Their debut album, In the Presence of Greatness (originally released in 1991 by the New York indie Ringers Lactate), was recorded by Sweet in his home eight-track studio. A Single Odyssey collects 20 tracks released between 1990 and 2000, including aesthetically revealing covers of the Modern Lovers’ “She Cracked,” Teenage Fanclub’s “Everything Flows,” the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman,” and Gram Parsons’s “One Hundred Years From Now.”

Also next week, Parasol will issue Demolition, a solo album by Champaign pop fixture Adam Schmitt, who played with Menck in the late-80s group Pop the Balloon. His own stuff has a glossier, more modern feel, more like Tommy Keene’s than Menck’s. The new album, recorded in Schmitt’s home studio over the last eight years, is his first since 1993’s Illiterature, the second of two commercial flops recorded for Warner Brothers.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Owen.