Reviews

The Handsome Family

Jillian Steinberger
The Handsome Family

The Handsome Family

City: San Francisco
Venue: Bottom of the Hill
Date: 2002-01-12

The club was packed, and the crowd by the bar only shushed when Brett and Rennie, like a young, perverse Johnny and June, took the stage. It was like welcoming a punk rock Mr. Green Jeans. The witching hour had begun, and indeed, it was midnight, when most headlining acts begin at Bottom of the Hill. Remember those tales about Bloody Mary when you were a kid? Rennie Sparks, the Mrs. of the duo known as The Handsome Family, may have taken them to heart. The evening started off with her announcement that "This first one is about Santa bringing a bottle of wine and a trip to the emergency room." Then they launched into "So Much Wine". The audience was appreciative. I saw a couple Stetsons, a few longhairs and, of course, the usual San Francisco hipsters. Rennie and Brett Sparks have been called the Morticia and Gomez Addams of alt.country. A combination of somber melodies and tales of suicide, murder, madness and wounded animals, what sometimes comes across as stark and minimal on the albums is actually strummy and sickly comedic live. By singing Rennie's darkly whimsical lyrics in a deadpan style, Brett gives the music an edginess: their murder and suicide ballads are sung straight. If you're not listening you might miss the one-liners Brett speaks of. But they're there, and live, the couple's wicked sense of humor is pronounced and cuts through the existential dread. Rennie's role is primarily lyricist for this gothic Americana act. However, she was charming on the instruments she'd brought with her -- banjo, bass (a wacky-looking Steinberger that sounded fab), lo-fi Yamaha keyboard, and an autoharp she clung to like a rag doll. "All I want to do is play the banjo", said Rennie, after receiving a big round of applause from the audience for her playing on "Dark Eye". Commenting playfully, her husband, Brett Sparks, raised an eyebrow and said, "Somebody's been practicing." Before launching into the song, off their acclaimed fifth album, Twilight (Carrot Top, October 2001), he'd let slip that this was Rennie's first time playing banjo in public. She'd blushed and protested. An accomplished and confident musician, Brett stuck to his electrified acoustic guitar, plus harmonica on a couple songs, whistles, and the drum machine (with remote control). "On tour we're lo-fi, stripped down, by necessity", Brett explained after the show. "But when we record we're lush. We're touring with a drummer in six months -- it's more human than the drum machine". Clinging to a ragdoll rather than an autoharp would not have appeared out of place for Rennie, who has a homespun, farm girl look with a residual punk rock edge. Rennie's ensemble was St. Vincent de Paul chic -- a blue jean skirt with a large smiling frog appliqué (reflecting the innocently off-kilter nature themes of many of her songs), a mismatched brown button down man's shirt, black tights and thick-soled, lace-up sensible shoes. Plus, for glamour's sake, matte red lipstick -- something every post-punk girl needs, even if she has gone alt.country. Rennie's stringy brown hair, lanky body and four-eyes are all in character -- she herself is a doll, mischievous, pretty, sweet -- and definitely one twisted sister. The critics have praised The Handsome Family's country-folk surrealism, but they've overstressed the grim nature of the music. Brett and Rennie emphasize the humor, black as it may be. Says Rennie, "People think we're trying to form a suicide cult. That would be bad marketing. Didn't Ozzie Osborn say that about the satanic subliminal messages that parents thought were on his records? I don't want to kill off my fans. I want them to live long and be happy. I want to make them laugh". Brett, with a short beard and wearing a plaid button down with pearl snaps and blue jeans, echoed his wife's words. "Everybody thinks we're gloom and doom. They're like, 'Don't invite them over for dinner, a lot of fun they'll be!' But we're really hopeful and comical. There are so many jokes and one-liners in our work. We think we're pretty funny"! They are funny. A good part of what makes the show entertaining is their darkly witty banter. That banter had the audience in the palm of their hand, as when Brett exclaimed, "Shit fuck"! and Rennie responded, "Is everything ok"? "Every inch of my body aches", moaned Brett. Rennie smiled and in a satisfied voice commented, "I feel okay." Then she threw the audience a knowing grin. They laughed. There's nothing like a suicide song sung to a pretty tune, especially in a rich country baritone like Brett's. A song that had singular meaning for San Franciscans was "Weightless Again", from 1998's Through The Trees. It's the tale of men and women lost in the great outdoors, a warped elucidation of why "people OD on pills and jump from the Golden Gate Bridge". Rennie played sweetly on a small, ultra lo-fi Yamaha keyboard for this number, and Brett's excellent guitar playing was strummy and jangly. The song reached in and grabbed the minor chords right out of you. "I like to sing". Brett proudly confirmed his baritone and explained that he grew up mostly in New Mexico and Texas, listening to local music. His vocal range is impressive, from opera to country and western, and multi-octave. He's also not bad with a guitar --he's very good, in fact, and imaginative. He may play a song straight through in country and western style, then end it noisy a la Sonic Youth by plucking at seemingly random strings, ending with dissonance. (Indeed, the duo distantly recalls the disbanded cowpunk outfit, the much-loved Killdozer, on the Touch & Go label, because of their humor. Killdozer also had its roots in Chicago and southern Wisconsin.) Live, Brett ends songs unlike any musician I've seen. On their eighth song, "All the TVs in Town", from the new album, Brett pointed at the drum machine and uttered, "Stop, stop, stop"! when it wouldn't turn off. The audience was in stitches. He's an amusing, self-referential performer. He shared with the audience that it was his birthday that night, and on "Grandmother Waits For You," which sounds like a scary Peter, Paul and Mary song, he'd call out, "chorus"! For the encore, "Furniture", which he performed hesitantly at an audience member's request (and had trouble remembering the words), he explained nostalgically that it was the first song he'd taught Rennie. He called out "coda"! and "outro"! Again, the audience was in stitches. Hopefully the Sparks will record a live album. Rennie often glances over and smiles unconsciously at her husband while he plays. That chemistry is also apparent musically through their vocal harmonies and the accomplished duets of their string playing, as on "Drunk By Noon", from 1996's Milk and Scissors. It's always a treat to see a great act at Bottom of the Hill, one of only a handful of independently owned clubs left in San Francisco. It's an important stop for many critically-acclaimed indie bands as they tour, making their way up the Pacific Coast to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver from L.A. It's a small venue, where the audience gets close up and personal with the performer -- you can see the pupils of their eyes, see their fingers pick the strings, the drumstick tap the tom tom, up there in front near the stage. Performers mill around the club after the show, accessible to their fans. The audience appreciated both opening bands and gave them healthy rounds of applause. The folk-noir group that opened for The Handsomes -- The Willard Grant Conspiracy, from Boston -- released two well-received albums in 2001. Up in front, it was mesmerizing to watch their pedal steel guitarist plucking at the strings, and my companion especially appreciated Richard Fisher's somber vocals and the lyrics of their murder ballads. From Oakland, California, Winfred E. Eye's roiling folk rock got a couple hot chicks out dancing sexy in the front, trying to make eye contact with that five piece, and the rest of the audience appreciated the tightness of their melodic song structures. After the show, Rennie looked at my pad and wrinkled her nose. "I saw you scribbling up there", she said. "You take lots of notes, like me. Some girls, they write three words and they're done. Not me. I don't know how those girls do it". With the librettos in her oeuvre, I somehow felt honored to be in the Rennie school of note-taking. Brett, who likes playing with his wife because "I don't have to leave my family at home", is a nice guy. In fact, the Sparks are folks you'd enjoy sitting around with drinking Old Mill on the porch on a Midwestern summer night watching fireflies twitter, listening to cicadas hum, playing a few hands of poker -- and telling ghost stories. The Handsome Family's fans are loyal. A tall, fresh faced fellow who looked not-so-long-off-the-farm awkwardly tried to hand Brett a fifty dollar bill. He guffawed, saying, "This is embarrassing, but I downloaded a couple of your CDs off the Internet, and I really want to support you. I feel like a jerk for those downloads". As he held out the bill, Brett put both hands up in the universal "stop" sign, chuckled good-naturedly, and begged off. "You don't have to give me your money", he protested. The fellow persisted. "Hey, if you really want to, okay", Brett said, "but, I download stuff and I burn people's CDs all the time, too. No problem, man"! Then he nodded, threw me a wink and said, "Now there's a story for you".

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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