News

The Handsome Family is searingly honest

Jim Farber
New York Daily News (MCT)

Rats, fleas and serial killers - these are a few of Rennie Sparks' favorite things.

The lyricist for the brilliantly morbid duo known as the Handsome Family writes with pleasure about things that make most people flinch. "Rats get a bad rep," she says. "They help each other and they have a sense of humor. A documentary on the BBC showed that if you tickle them, they giggle.

"Maybe I'm a little strange," Sparks allows. "I get rats, but I don't get people."

Luckily, a growing cult of people get both her and her husband Brett Sparks, who, together, make up one of the smartest and most challenging groups in the alterna-country music universe.

Over the last 11 years the Handsome Family (whose name aims to cross the Carter Family with the Manson Family) has issued eight albums, most recently 2006's astonishing "Last Days of Wonder." On it, Rennie matches lyrics of punishing clarity to Brett's spindly country ballads. The music has a parched purity. It's rickety, raw and delicately beautiful.

Rennie's words boast the visual specificity of a screenplay. "I mostly blame my writing style on spending a year writing for the Sears catalogue about women's ugly underwear," she says. "I had to use the nicest words to describe the worst bras and underpants. I got to be really good at picking just the right adjectives."

Instead of girdles, Sparks now writes often about death and destruction. In the song "Your Great Journey," a character wanders through a purgatory between the waking life and eternity. In "Beautiful William," a man disappears, leaving disquieting clues, while in "After We Shot the Grizzly" a group of castaways faces increasingly gruesome ends.

Rennie and Brett draw key inspiration from old murder ballads and bloody Celtic odes. "Art should let us safely explore our tragedies," Rennie says. "A song can let you deal with violent feelings without having to actually go out and murder somebody."

To Sparks, bringing oblivion close isn't a way to be shocking or perverse, it's a way to make living more vivid.

"Life is very much about the fact that we're dying all the time," she says. "Yet we still manage to find purpose and a sense of wonder in the everyday. The world, to me, is beautiful but also violent and scary. I'm just trying to capture what it feels like to be alive."

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

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Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

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If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

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