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.