Handsome Family

at Metro, July 4

By Monica Kendrick

I’ve been snarked at, both in print and in public, for my unwillingness to embrace the whole of alternative country–a sin to which I’ll readily confess, but not because I don’t understand the contemporary appeal of traditional rural music. It’s obvious: hillbilly tunes and Delta blues alike allow a listener to step away from the myriad petty concerns of urban life and feel the dirt between his toes, to experience his problems as basic and universal, to know that someone who might have picked cotton all her life or worn knee pants as a boy once felt just as lonesome as he does at four o’clock in the morning.

But the problem with alternative country is that most reproductions of traditional rural music are too slavish or too campy; either way they come off as shallow. Not just the lyrics but the very inflections of rural music are informed by the day-to-day cares of the people who make it. Those might originally have been the hardships of the farm or the cruelty of the coal mine, but if some college-educated city hipster truly yearns to create music in the same vein, he owes it to the tradition to reach deep into his own daily hardships–the crappy subsistence jobs, the nasty breakups, the shady landlords–in search of the ancient clay. Because one also owes it to the tradition not to pretend to be less sophisticated than one is.

Chicago’s Handsome Family have been straddling the line between tribute and parody, reverence and camp, over the course of three LPs now. Their second album, 1996’s Milk and Scissors, was the first perfect crystallization of Brett Sparks’s sparse, grim musical aesthetic and Rennie Sparks’s darkly whimsical stories. For the follow-up, Through the Trees, released early this year, the couple replaced percussionist Mike Werner with a drum machine, and the songs–about twins dead from snakebite, lovers’ suicide pacts, anorexics dying in squalid Chicago apartments, lizards pouring out of a horse’s skull, and alienated urbanites looking for love in shuttered resort towns during the off-season–are as stark and minimal as any hissy old 78.

The extreme simplicity serves them well on record. Rennie’s lyrics, usually intoned by Brett, are the undisputed focus, and Brett’s somber melodies seem to flow naturally from the rhythm of the words, making contemporary details like “In our hotel room / You’re drinking Slice and gin / Reading Moby-Dick / On the other bed” (from the opening track, “Weightless Again”) sound as archetypal as pronouncements like “Every creature casts a shadow / Under the sun’s golden fingers / But when the sun sinks past the waving grass / Some shadows are dragged along” (from “My Sister’s Tiny Hands”). It also makes the transition to live performance, even in a big room like Metro, a good deal smoother for the Handsome duo than it is for many other word-oriented bands: the Sparkses can reproduce songs with just the degree of accuracy they choose–and for the fans who have memorized the record, small improvisational touches, like Brett’s effects flourishes or the way he gurgles the fourth syllable of the word “heart,” stand out in high relief.

In fact, though the albums are intense in their own right, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the Handsome Family without seeing them live. Brett’s severe man-in-black look and maniacal foot twitching and Rennie’s thrift-shop ball gowns and the way she embraces her Autoharp like Wednesday Addams holding a headless doll provide a visual counterpoint to the emotional excess of their music. Between their sitcom-banal husband-and-wife stage banter and Rennie’s bizarre mini monologues about children raised by squirrels, overzealous majorettes twirling their own arms, and cupcakes made from ground glass and blood, the Sparkses seem to be confronting head-on the irony of being two city bohos playing backwoods music.

At Metro, Rennie, a performance artist from Long Island, announces, “We’re really happy this song is getting put on a compilation of the creepiest songs ever written….We’re getting paid in dead birds,” then lurches into “Down in the Ground,” delivered in her completely affected, harshly nasal approximation of the voice of an ancient hillbilly witch. When her voice rips out of the massive PA declaring, “Cry for the toy trains lost in the snow / Cry for the dead deer surrounded by crows / You call me softly down in the dark / Down where the red worms circle like sharks,” the goose bumps come from her simultaneous awareness and transcendence of that irony.

Of course, it’s the transcendence that’s key–and it’s Rennie’s ability to tell a story, plain and simple, that transcends the limits imposed by where and when she had the luck to be born. Her respun tall tales, like “The Giant of Illinois” (who died from a blister on his toe), come side by side with her own pinpoint-accurate depictions of mental illness and mortal fear in the here and now. (On the day “The Woman Downstairs” starves herself to death, Brett mourns, “When the wind / Screamed up Ashland Avenue / The corner bars were full by noon.”)

The two types of stories reinforce each other: In folktales from almost any culture, not to mention the magical realism of contemporary writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Amado, the supernatural functions as a trickster lurking on the edges of reality, challenging assumptions, causing crises that force the characters to grow or die, and generally making life seem like it might be significant enough to finish slogging through. And music, like literature, is most magical when it reveals the presence of those shadowy forces in our own lives, reminding us that great miracles and epic tragedies are not as distant as we think. The Handsome Family are mesmerizing because the world they describe is not someone’s idea of turn-of-the-century Appalachia or even the real thing. It’s late-90s Chicago, and the ominous winds and vengeful ghosts are our own.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Handsome Family photos by Marty Perez.