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
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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

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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