PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

The Handsome Family: Wilderness

This New Mexico duo's latest is another strong collection of strange and hypnotic Americana music.


The Handsome Family

Wilderness

Label: Carrot Top
US Release Date: 2013-05-14
UK Release Date: 2013-05-20
Artist Website
Amazon
iTunes

Listening to the Handsome Family’s music feels a bit like traveling to another world--a place both beautiful and frightening, where the cry of a bird or the whispering shake of a tree branch can herald great cruelty and pain. It’s not a world I’d want to be stuck in forever, but I’m always grateful for the chance to visit.

That holds true for the band’s ninth and latest record, Wilderness, a loose concept album in which contemplation of Nature serves as a springboard for more of the band’s journeys into dream-like surrealism. In these songs we find a woman who is struck by lightning and then wrapped inside a caterpillar’s cocoon; a man who is pursued and ultimately ripped apart by spiders, ants and snakes; and yet another man who lives his life surrounded by watchful owls. Wilderness doesn’t quite match the Handsome Family’s best work, which for my money is 2000’s superb In The Air, but it’s a hypnotic and memorable addition to the band’s catalog.

For the uninitiated, the Handsome Family consists of the Albuquerque-based married duo, Brett and Rennie Sparks. Brett writes the band’s music, a moody atmospheric mix of traditional American styles--country, folk, ragtime, blues. Brett is also the band’s singer; his expressive baritone, which can hit astonishing lows, is a key component of the band’s sound. Rennie writes the lyrics, which tend to focus on the dark side of human relationships as well as the mysterious beauty of the natural world.

Each of the songs on Wilderness is named after an animal, a gimmick that might cause some to groan. But the titles are just starting points for Rennie’s vivid and varied tales. Album opener “Flies” begins with an image of a bloody and dying General Custer, then shifts into a meditation on humanity’s conquest of nature: “Dear Custer there’s a Wal-Mart now where once the grizzlies roamed”. “Woodpecker” is a sympathetic portrait of Mary Sweeney, a real-life woman who was institutionalized after going on a window-smashing spree in her 19th-century Wisconsin town: “She was a woodpecker, she couldn’t help but see/All the things that hide inside all the pretty trees”. And “Spider” tells the story of the poor sap who finds himself stalked by creepy crawlies of all sorts, until a “million little teeth tore me to pieces”. Rennie’s lyrics crackle with a love for language, and they live on in your mind like lines from the best fiction.

Brett, meanwhile, brings the lyrics to haunting life with his vocals, which hit just the right balance of gravity and dark humor. In “Octopus”, the narrator describes a legend that says an octopus, by waving its eight arms a certain way, can induce a man to drown himself in the ocean. Brett’s deadpan delivery of the next line is priceless: “That’s why I know I shouldn’t go on a seashore holiday”.

The music on Wilderness is typically understated Americana, with acoustic instruments--banjo, piano, mandolin, guitar--doing much of the heavy lifting. Most of these songs move at a slow burn, and the languid pace is bound to test the patience of some listeners, particularly those new to the band (I grew frustrated myself at certain points). But stick with it: The subtle beauty of these songs reveals itself gradually, over the course of repeated listens.

Brett and Rennie have been making music together as the Handsome Family for two decades now, and Wilderness shows that their collaboration remains as vital as ever. The album moves slowly, yes, but it’s never boring, and the songs once again open doors to a strange and fascinating new world.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror, Vol. 1'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.