[9 June 2014]
Indelibly linked through their shared time in Chicago during the mid-to late- ‘90s and early ‘00s, Andrew Bird and the Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks have a long history together. There’s a sense of mutual admiration expressed by each in concert, often affectionately recalling their time spent together in the Windy City. Bird made his first Handsome Family-related appearance on the duo’s 2000 release In the Air, contributing violin on three tracks. He’s since gone on to cover their song “The Giant of Illinois” both regularly in concert and for the Dark Was the Night compilation in 2009, all the while extolling the band’s virtues and spreading the good word.
While neither are necessarily household names, Bird’s musical and pop cultural stature is certainly greater than that of the Handsome Family’s on a broader scale and with each performance in which he takes on a Handsome Family number, their respective audiences hopefully grow. His affection and appreciation of and for the group is evident in the almost reverential love and care with which he performs the criminally overlooked duo’s solid catalog of gothic country, murder ballads and Americana.
It’s quite fitting then that Bird would decide to tackle an entire album of Handsome Family covers, bringing to light one of the darker bodies of work in contemporary American music. With Rennie crafting the literate, at times darkly funny lyrics and Brett delivering them in a monotone baritone that often resembles a foghorn, the Handsome Family’s living room-recorded albums are not always for everyone. From their sparse arrangements to the sometimes thin sounding production, listeners generally come for the songs more than the sounds being presented. Besides, full immersion in the Handsome Family requires attendance at one of the pair’s concerts wherein they often go off on bizarre asides, sharing amusing anecdotes and generally acting like an old married couple on stage in between, and occasionally during, songs.
With Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, Bird reimagines ten Handsome Family songs, recreating them in his own, often more classical-leaning image. Gone are the Sparks’ rougher edges, replaced by an elegance and reverence that elevates these very live-sounding, intimate performances and simultaneously reshapes the lyrical context. With Bird’s choir-boy tenor, previously dark lyrics delivered in Brett’s low rumble suddenly take on a new light; no longer earth-bound, they scale swirling heights that give each new life, imbuing them with a new sense of purpose, a beauty within which it is easy to get lost.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the tracks here come from albums released during their respective times in Chicago, with three form the aforementioned In the Air (“So Much Wine”, “The Sad Milkman” and “Don’t Be Scared”), two from their critically adored 1998 breakthrough release Through the Trees (“The Giant of Illinois” and “My Sister’s Tiny Hands”) and one from 1996’s Milk and Scissors (“Drunk By Noon”). Eschewing note-for-note recreations, Bird uses the basic idea of each song as a base upon which to build lovingly altered melodies with subtle changes to chord progressions that enhance the emotional weight of each and adding a lyrical melodicism often lacking in the originals’ utilitarian renderings.
On “So Much Wine” (here re-titled “So Much Wine Merry Christmas”), Bird takes a minor key approach to the original’s major key progression that, when the song opens up, makes the sentiments expressed and tale of Christmas-morning domestic violence all the sadder, perfectly complimented by vocal work from his Hands of Glory backing group featuring Tift Merritt, Alan Hampton (bass), Eric Heywood (pedal steel), and Kevin O’Donnell (drums). His slower take makes an already impossibly sad, reflective song all the more so when given a more balladic treatment that shrugs off the original’s heavy two and four in favor of a subtler, more delicate approach.
“The Sad Milkman”, one of the duo’s better known songs and often covered in concert by Bird, simply doesn’t compare to the original’s devastating beauty. Of the songs here, it is one of the few better suited to Brett’s voice than Andrew’s. By no means bad, it simply feels as though something is missing and overall does not possess quite the same gravity as when conveyed by Sparks. Bird’s almost conversational recitation of the lyrics doesn’t help matters much either, lending an almost off-hand approach to one of the more lyrically compelling songs in the Handsome Family catalog.
Album closer “Far From Any Road (By My Hand)” most resembles Bird’s current live performances with the violin doubling at times as a mandolin before switching back to bowed playing. Rennie’s exceptional, devastating lyrics, the impact of which is sometimes lost due to Brett’s often idiosyncratic delivery, are presented here with a clarity that helps illuminate their poetic quality. Bird’s hauntingly ethereal bowed overtones circle high above the sparse arrangement’s brushed snare, spare guitar and plucked bass, adding to the overall eeriness and beauty conveyed by the song in its basest form.
Above all, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of… serves as a musical love letter to friends and inspirations; exceptional in execution, beautiful in its haunting simplicity. If there is any justice, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of… will open the door for further exploration by equally sympathetic artists to one of the best contemporary American songbooks out there.