Rennie and Brett Sparks are the oddest and most bizarre couple in alt.country or old-time country circles today. And god bless them for it! The Chicago couple who now call New Mexico home have continued to push the sound of the likes of early George Jones, Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, and Marty Robbins with a style that is near impossible not to appreciate. And the tales in each song are fit for either a David Lynch or Coen brothers score. The group’s last album Twilight spoke about animals, mothers and offspring drowning in cars, and other assorted eerie tales. The new album is no different, although peaches, toads and two anthems about possible Armageddon are the topics. It’s only adding more shine to what is becoming a very impressive discography.
The baker’s dozen tracks starts with “The Forgotten Lake”, a song that has Brett’s baritone in fine form. Rennie adds harmonies as lyrics about shadows climbing darkened walls. It’s knee-deep in that unmistakable slow, waltz-y country that ambles along beautifully. And the sparse instrumentation makes the vocals the centerpiece each and every time. Brett, who plays most of the instruments on the album, has a rich and deep vocal that never falters. “Gail with the Golden Hair” is just slightly more up-tempo, possessing a certain Mariachi flavor as the subject sits on his roof of his car shooting beer empties. Harmonizing against his lead vocal, creating a ghostly tone throughout. “I draw circles through the alleys / Calling my burning lover / But Gail ran deeper into the gloom / Screaming at the street lights”, is a perfect example of the dark yet comical nature of the song.
None of the tracks vary much in terms of instrumentation and arrangement, which might be a bit arduous for some listeners. Nonetheless, when it’s done to such perfection, it’s hard to argue with. “24-Hour Store” is a slower, Neil Young-like ballad that has a lot in common with his “Harvest Moon” track, especially with its brushing on drums. “No, no one hears the singing bones / And no one sees the crying ghosts”, Brett sings with a calmness that makes one wonder if he is insane or just having a bad day. And the ominous sound is that of a musical saw. “The Bottomless Hole” has a Hank Williams Sr. texture to it, as the Handsome Family give another strong performance on the acoustic driven track. Johnny Cash can also be discerned in the way Brett delivers the song.
More of the Tex-Mex trumpets and guitars are pleasantly heard on “Far from Any Road”, possibly the bounciest and catchiest effort on the record. Rennie also takes lead on some verses. The tune has a certain tango quality to it. What comes next is quite different though, as “If the World Should End in Fire” is brimming with a near gospel-like approach meeting a barbershop quartet. It’s a fleeting tune that last just over a minute, but seems appropriate. Unfortunately, “A Shadow Underneath” seems to go too far into the fifties sound and comes off a bit like a parody of the genre. It’s something they aren’t trying to do, but there isn’t that Handsome Family quirk or intangible that makes it its own. The ensuing tune atones for the faux pas, as “Dry Bones” is a folk song that is given a jug band back beat.
“Fallen Peaches” makes the album dark again, making it a murder ballad Nick Cave would love to perform. “Ahead of me ran Jackson / Who took a bullet to the chest / And beneath the swaying peaches / Jackson slowly bled to death”, Sparks sings. What’s also interesting is the ending, which doesn’t add anything special. “Whitehaven” gives a certain medieval dirge to it, with strings and harmonies from the couple quite sweet. “Sleepy” might be the closest thing the band gets to alt.country’s structured format, but Brett’s vocal isn’t as strong as say a staple such as “So Much Wine”.
Just before the closing “If the World Should End in Ice”, The Handsome Family offer up a great and toe-tapping melody in “The Song of a Hundred Toads”. Its verse structure brings George Jones to mind as Brett tells the story of laying down in the dirt as toads welcome him into his world. The Handsome Family is an acquired taste to be sure, but a delectable taste at that!
// Notes from the Road
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