Handsome Family


Randall Roberts
March 5, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

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Nature's creepy. It seeps into your wounds and infects you; it covers your trees with ice, and it stalls your car. It's not climate-controlled and it doesn't live in your home entertainment center. And it coats with dust and peppers with age "Through the Trees," the third record by the Handsome Family, the husband-and-wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks (he writes most of the music; she writes most of the lyrics). Expanding their sound from the standard bass, guitar and drums to include a wider range of instrumentation -- softer guitars, autoharp, banjo, Dobro, violin, bass, melodica, piano, a quiet, unobtrusive drum machine and Brett's sturdy, beautiful voice -- the Handsome Family create a strange amalgam of pre-World War II country music and a more current, subdued, slightly twangy rock, with lush but simple arrangements. 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 little objects of nature -- like pine cones or something.

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 woods -- or sometimes, through the streets of Chicago, where the Handsome Family live. In "Giant of Illinois," two boys who chanced upon a swan sleeping in the woods "stormed it with rocks till it collapsed in the reeds." In "My Sister's Tiny Hands," a girl, mourning the death of her twin from a snake bite in the forest, "set the woods to burning and choked the river up with stones." These are old-school country songs, grotesque and brutal, and through these narratives they offer something dumbfoundingly magical -- something far removed from anything remotely meta or post.

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"Through the Trees" is also about relationships -- birth, death and the in-between -- and because a husband and wife are creating and performing these songs, an immediate context is laid before us: In "Cathedrals," the Handsome Family move from a cathedral in Cologne that "looks like a spaceship" to icy Wisconsin: "Hoping to feel love under the icicles, all we did was drink in an empty bar. But, stumbling drunk we crawled back to our motel room and I fell against you and felt your beating heart."

Underneath it all flows a debilitating sense of dread and awe; a restless black fog floats in the record's stomach, the result of playing with dangerous emotions -- fear, regret, passion, sorrow, loss and a steady stream of foreboding. The Handsome Family poke at it from different angles. Also inside is a wicked sense of humor that cuts through the existential dread. "My Ghost," the closing song on the album, tells the true story of a stay in a mental hospital: "Here in the bipolar ward if you shower you get a gold star. But I'm not going far till the Haldol kicks in -- until then, until then -- I'm stuck in this fucking twin bed and I won't get any cookies or tea, till I stop quoting Nietzsche and brush my teeth and comb my hair." Like some form of clairvoyant madness, "Through the Trees" sneaks in faintly, as though a whisper from a secret world -- one that's always there right outside the door, waiting patiently for an opportunity to consume you.


Randall Roberts

Randall Roberts is the music editor of the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly paper.

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