It’s been a long wait for new music from Albuquerque’s The Handsome Family. Their previous release was 2016’s masterful and thematically coherent Unseen a strong collection of twang-filled Country & Southwestern gothic songs. At last comes their 11th studio album Hollow, which treads familiar territory lyrically, but with more complex arrangements and some less familiar instruments. (Although, to be fair, they’ve often employed a wide variety of instruments on their records, and have been playing with a full band at many gigs for more than a decade.)
I’ve reviewed my share of pandemic-inspired albums, but Hollow does as well as any of them at capturing the sense of dislocation, surrealism, and existential dread that we’ve all stared in the face for the past three-plus years. Partly because this is where the songwriting and domestic duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks have lived since forever: A world where nature can go from cuddly to threatening in the blink of an eye, where the world and the cosmos loom like Poe’s Pendulum in our psyches, and where every house (and airport, motel, and convenience store) is haunted. It opens with a nightmare and a scream, and closes with the Sparkses waving goodbye like rats deserting a sinking ship.
The album opens with the stately, anthemic ballad “Joseph,” and right off the bat it sounds different. Multi-tracked strummed acoustic guitars welcome a piano and a Mellotron-like synthesizer that plays a series of ambulance-like tremolos eerily reminiscent of “I Am The Walrus.” The drolly delivered apocalyptic lyrics are classic Handsome Family, though: “Latch the windows, lock the doors / cover the mirrors, call the dogs. Pull up the floorboards, tap on the walls / look into the eyes of that old porcelain dog …” The story behind the genesis of Joseph, which started with a nightmare and a scream, is too good not to share:
“It was a bleak winter during the middle of the pandemic,” says Brett. “One night around 4 a.m. Rennie started screaming in her sleep. She screamed, ‘Come into the circle Joseph! There’s no moon tonight.’ Scary as it was, I thought, man, that’s a good chorus!”
That’s the sign of a true artiste, always ready to turn a loved one’s pain into art!
“Two Black Shoes” is another gothic country ballad, even with the centrally featured electric piano and a middle bridge played on that orchestral synth again. It’s a depressing portrait of a city full of unhoused persons, and perhaps of the claustrophobia that was endemic during the pandemic, played in a deeply unsettling musical landscape – a plodding series of descending chords on electric piano, drummer Jason Toth tapping out a martial tattoo on high snare.
The trio of Brett (who writes the music), Rennie (words) and Toth on drums and percussion has been in place for several years now. On this outing Alex McMahon plays guitar on a few songs and Dave Gutierrez mandolin on one track. Rennie does some vocal bits and plays a bit of banjo (she usually plays bass guitar or banjo on stage), and otherwise Brett plays all the instruments and did the recording. (Legendary producer Dave Trumfio, who has worked with them off and on since their first record, did the mastering.)
This is such a strong collection of songs, rivaling anything they’ve done. For the most part they’re compelling musically, too. There are a couple of songs that sound to me like they’re very much inspired by the Louvin Brothers. Both “The Oldest Water” and “Invisible Man” feature some compelling multi-tracked harmony vocals from Brett. The former, inspired by the real story of a primordial sea found deep in a Canadian mine, is arranged as a parlor waltz with nice touches of Dobro and mandolin. The latter is a thrillingly dark exploration of toxic masculinity in a kind of a classic country arrangement that belies the dark lyrics. “Can you see your hands without bathing them in blood?” Brett asks in the very first line.
“The King Of Everything” is another upbeat ditty, its arrangement sounding like something out of the mid-60s, complete with harpsichord, with a jangly, understated guitar solo in the middle. Lyrically it’s recognizably Rennie Sparks’s skewed, slightly surreal universe where we’re all in the center of our own little world. There’s a dove up in a tree who owns the sky (which is a pretty funny observation, as doves are pretty meek and mild birds); a cat in the grass hoping to catch the dove; and the guy in his yard watching them both “as the pills hit my brain.” “Strawberry Moon” is classic observational poetry from Rennie (“The night we saw all those raccoons crossing the yard just starting to bloom, right past the porch where we sat in our chairs; one ran across the roof, one climbed over the fence, the night of the strawberry moon”) perfectly displayed in a languid, tropical setting with lightly plucked acoustic guitar, synths, tokking percussion, brushed snares and vibraphone. I think this is the first use of vibes by the Handsomes. (Oops, nope. See the opening track “Your Great Journey” on Last Days of Wonder.)
The second single (“Joseph” was the first), “Skunks,” is a shambling waltz about a house and world overcome by critters, its increasingly absurd chorus a repeated refrain of a pest management company that apparently will take care of all of your other needs too: “Call us day or night / yes we have live bait.” It comes with a disturbing video of Brett exploring the cluttered and collapsing basement and grounds of an abandoned house.
In the middle of the second side are back-to-back paeans to Nature that musically are polar opposites: “Shady Lake” is a slow shuffle driven by Toth’s brushed snare, Rennie’s banjo quietly plinking behind Brett’s wall of guitars, including one fed through a Leslie cabinet that echoes the shimmer of the lake and its shady grove where there are “no shopping bags, no passwords.” “To The Oaks,” on the other hand, is loping, peppy and very electric, a final call to all of Nature to “wake the world below.” It’s happy, singsong wordless “na-na-na” chorus is something out of 60s girl groups, a deliberate juxtaposition to the lyrics about “root and dirt and bone.”
Hollow closes strongly with the darkly hilarious “Good Night,” a companion piece of sorts to “So Long” off of 2001’s Twilight (which remains my favorite of theirs). “It’s time for the rats to abandon the ship,” Brett sings, “time for the billionaires to board their jet, it’s time to say good night.” If this isn’t a song born of the pandemic, I don’t know what is. “…It’s time for the ghosts to pull on their sheets, time for the goblins to brush their teeth …” all highlighted by a woozy dissonant instrumental break on pedal steel, overdriven slide guitar and glockenspiel, and then a sing-along fade out.
It’s so good to have The Handsome Family back in the game. I can’t wait to see them work these songs out on stage. Tour dates and more at the links.
(Milk & Scissors Music / Loose Music, 2023)
I’ve reviewed many other albums by The Handsome Family, and published an interview with them:
- Through the Trees
- In the Air
- Twilight, and the Smothered and Covered EP
- Singing Bones
- Last Days of Wonder
- Honey Moon
- Scattered EP
- Interview, 2007
- Live in Portland, 2011