Andrew Bird says that Brett and Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family are this era’s greatest songwriters. He ought to know: he did a whole album of Handsome Family covers. Whether or not you agree with Bird – another one of this era’s best tunesmiths and wordsmiths – you can’t argue with the Handsome Family’s iconic status in folk noir circles. They’ve got a new album, Unseen – streaming at Spotify – and a couple of shows this weekend. On Friday, Sept 30 they’re at the Mercury at 8:30 PM for $17 in advance; the following night, Oct 1 they’re at the Knitting Factory for the same price, a half-hour later.
It’s interesting how the new album is a throwback to their earliest days, when they were more of a straight-up Americana band. However, this is a harder-rocking effort. The opening track, Gold takes the hallowed tradition of the outlaw ballad into the Oxycontin era: “Got a tattoo of a snake and a ski mask on my face, but I woke up in the ditch behind the Stop-and-Go,” Brett intones. “Lying the weeds with a bullet in my gut, watching dollar bills fly away in the dust.” The interweave of his own tremolo guitars, Alex McMahon’s baritone guitar and pedal steel is as luscious as the cruel irony of the narrative. It’s classic Handsome Family.
The Silver Light shambles along with an acoustic honkytonk feel, a crushingly cynical Vegas casino scenario. “Neon glowstick in your drink.” For fans of classic 60s and early 70s country, the backing vocals are priceless. The broodingly cello-infused Back in My Day offers a typical Rennie Sparks narrative:
We had maps that unfolded
You could drink from the river
We had gods made of clay
There were mile-high glaciers
No locks on the doors
The stars burned brighter
We never counted past four
And at that point it becomes more and more clear that the good old days, while a lot more temperate than these cruel final global warming years, weren’t all they might be cracked up to be.
The bittersweet passing tones of the pump organ solo in the carnivalesque waltz Tiny Tina might be the album’s most understatedly heartbreaking touch. Underneath the Falls brings a distantly ominous, majestic, jangly Byrds-style grandeur to that waltz tempo, another global warming-era requiem.
Rennie makes her first appearance on vocals on The Sea Rose, a catchy, jangly, twist on a classic siren song with a gorgeously spare acoustic guitar solo midway through. The album’s most epically allusive cut, The Red Door is a Lynchian doo-wop update on a Brothers Grimm theme. The stately swaying Gentlemen, with its quaint electric harpsichord and cello, offers a shout-out to William Crookes, who invented the vacuum tube in 1875 as an ostensible means to access the great beyond.
King of Dust, a desolate wreck-on-the-highway scenario, revisits the cruel irony of the album’s opening cut. On the surface, the final cut, Green Willow Valley is a comfortable pastoral nocturne, but if you listen closely, the subtext is crushing. If this is the last album the Handsome Family makes before global warming, or the plutonium leaking into the Pacific from Fukushima reactor number three, kills us all, it further cements their status as arguably this century’s best band. Look for this on the best albums list of 2016 here if we make it that far.