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No New Abnormal

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Another Creepy Classic Album and a Couple of New York Shows from the Handsome Family

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.

The Handsome Family – Better Than Ever at the Slippper Room

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.

Two New York Shows and a Killer New Album from the Handsome Family

The Handsome Family have influenced so many harmony-folk and dark Americana acts over the years, yet they’re impossible to imitate. The husband/wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks’ resonant, unaffectedly moody vocals and brooding, surrealistic imagery have put them at the front of the noir folk caravan for the past couple of decades. They’ve got a show tonight, June 27 at 8:30 at the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton) and then on June 29 at 9 at the Knitting Factory; tickets are $20 and still available as of this moment. They’ve also got a characteristically excellent, thematic new album, Wilderness, just out,  also available as a deluxe edition from Carrot Top Records along with a book featuring both Rennie’s inimitable animal imagery and prose stylings – plus a poster and postcards.

Each of the dozen tracks on the album – their ninth – takes its name from a different animal, although in many instances those animals are only minor characters in the narrative. And Rennie’s tales are often as funny as they are surreal and creepy. The song ostensibly about a lizard chronicles a witch’s curse that gets an entire village dancing, and then they can’t stop, as the song’s ominous major/minor changes go on and on. The one titled Glowworm is a dead ringer for the Strawbs in their trippiest early 70s incarnation, soaring bassline and all, Brett soberly tracing the Jules Verne-like steampunk steps of an inner-earth explorer. The most oldtimey one is Woodpecker, the second song released this year about Mary Sweeney, the Wisconsin Window Smasher of 1896. In contrast to the jaunty tribute by A Brief View of the Hudson, the Handsome Family allude that her delusions might just have to do with a couple of the era’s most popular, legal substances.

There’s a spider’s tale set to a wry country waltz that’s straight out of Kafka. Flies, a high plains gothic mini-epic, begins with the death of General Custer and connects the dots between wars among both humans and ants. Frogs rocks as hard as this band ever has, a snarling electric Tonight’s the Night-era Neil Young evocation fueled by Brett’s searing leads. Stephen Foster is eulogized, dead and penniless in a Bowery flophouse, with a dreamy waltz lit up by Rennie’s twinkling bass ukulele. Myths – real or imagined – about where birds go in the winter, and the hypnotic effects of the octopus – are explored in wryly minute detail over gracefully waltzing or swaying changes. Giant caterpillars in Belize come to the rescue  – or do they? – when a woman is struck by lightning and “can’t escape the static or the 60 cycle hum” afterward. The funniest song here is Owls, an acerbically droll Edward Gorey-ish folk tune about an old guy losing it in his McMansion with “the clawfooted tubs, the room of rare orchids, the glass hall for my guns, statues of pharaohs twenty feet tall, crystal chandeliers, rare paintings of clowns.” The scariest, and most enigmatic one, is Gulls, which is not the only one here about a magic spell going drastically awry. Funeral parlor organ swells and ripples, glockenspiel tinkles eerily, accordion and fiddle resonate and gentle layers of guitar mingle over steady, minimalist drums. Yet another fantastic album, in every sense of the word.