The Handsome Family have never sounded better. And since they’ve sold out the Mercury the last several times they’ve played there, it was a little strange to see that their show Thursday night at the Slipper Room wasn’t. Maybe everybody in town was waiting to see them play Saturday night at the Knitting Factory. The band will be on midwest tour starting on July 19 at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis; anybody in the heartland who hasn’t seen them lately is in for a treat.
Playing and touring for two decades will make you good. Rennie Sparks’ lyrics are funnier than ever and Brett Sparks’ growling Neil Young-influenced guitar is as terse and purposeful as always. And he’s also funnier than ever, hamming it up with a faux George Jones drawl where his wife’s surreal, razor-sharp, sardonic lyrics called for it. Most of the set consisted of tracks from the band’s new album Wilderness, arguably their best. The biggest hit with the audience was Owls, an obvious Jones homage, its chemically altered narrator watching the walls of his McMansion bend as the birds swooped above the twenty-foot statues of pharaohs and rare paintings of clowns. Flies, which began with the image of a dead General Custer lying at roughly the same spot where a Walmart now stands and wound up by making the connection between ant wars and human ones, was another.
As the show went on, Rennie Sparks switched between stark, minimalist banjo and equally stark bass ukulele tuned to the same scale as a bass for a boomy, eerily emphatic low end anchored by drummer Jason Toth. She introduced the cruelly hilarious, deadpan nightmare holiday drunk scenario Too Much Wine as a song that literally got them banned from a club for playing it on Christmas, a tale that might or might not be true – the believability of the extremes in her unlikely stories is what makes them disturbing.
The trio alternated the Great Plains gothic of My Sister’s Tiny Hands and the Bay Bridge gothic of Weightless Again with the cynically amusing Woodpecker (which casts Mary Sweeney, the Wisconsin Window Smasher, as someone whose brain was fried by McKinley-era antidepressants) as well as more lighthearted, surrealistic tales: Jules Verne-style center-earth adventures set to oldschool country and artsy folk-rock, and the sly Octopus, whose narrator sneaks off for a glimpse of the creature whose effect on humans is, as he tells it, akin to the medusa. They closed the set a little on the early side with the similarly baffling yet plaintive The Loneliness of Magnets and encored with a brief Leonard Cohen-flavored tune from their early days. Onstage between songs, there was plenty of banter; the audience laughed uneasily, not knowing what to make of it, testament to the powerful unease of the Handsome Family’s music.