The Handsome Family sound energized on Last Days of Wonder. This is their seventh studio album starting with 1995’s Odessa, in addition to which they have put out a live set and an EP of odds and ends, and contributed to various compilations, soundtracks and whatnot, and taken part in a couple of high-profile Leonard Cohen tribute concerts, not to mention moving from Chicago to Albuquerque. These 12 songs are all winners in classic Handsome Family style, sung and played with verve and class, and produced cleanly, with mostly simple arrangements, but with a few added touches on nearly every track that make each one shine.
If you’re not familiar with the Handsome Family, they are the married couple Brett and Rennie Sparks, and they play modern versions of classic folk and country forms like death ballads and parlor gospel songs. Rennie writes these often shriekingly funny, sometimes wistful, sometimes morbid gems, and Brett puts them to music and sings lead on most of them in a delicious deadpan bass-baritone. They accompany themselves on guitars and banjo and various keyboards, and on Wonder they have help from a half-dozen or so guest musicians.
What a great bunch of songs this is! It starts off with “Your Great Journey,” which could be subtitled “how you know when you’re dead.” Rennie and (Brett’s brother) Darrell sing harmonies on the chorus, there’s lots of sweet pedal steel and some subtle vibraphone, too.
Also in the classic country vein is the honky-tonker “Bowling Alley Bar,” a vignette of the early days of a love affair in which the protagonist “wrecked my father’s car” behind that eponymous bar; and the final track, “Somewhere Else to Be,” a companion piece to their masterful cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Faraway Eyes.” This one’s another slice-of-life ballad about the panic and regret suffered because the singer didn’t smile back at the girl in the drive-thru window who sold him his onion rings, extra ketchup and iced tea.
Rennie Sparks’ lyrics often reflect a morbid fascination with death. In addition to the opening track, it’s manifested in the spooky graveyard scene of “White Lights” (on which she sings lead), the fantastical “Hunter Green” in which the hunter’s slain lover morphs into one wild animal after another, and back again; and “Beautiful William,” a sort of post-modern take on the death ballad. This slow and stately waltz tells of the disappearance of said William, who gets in his car and drives off, never to be seen alive again, leaving his friends to speculate about what happened. “We found his car by the roadside later that day … he left his lights burning, he left his perfect lawn, and his automatic sprinklers about to switch on…” Later, in grief or anger, his friends destroy his home … or maybe this was one of those drug deals gone awry.
“Tesla’s Hotel Room” is a bizarre song about the equally bizarre life and death of the oddball scientist-inventor who envisioned wireless phones. The album’s title comes from this song, which takes place “in the last days of wonder” when science and spiritualism still sometimes sat and held hands around the parlor table. “These Golden Jewels” is a first-person narrative of vandalism on a grand scale, done apparently to gain the attention of a lover who may actually be dead. “All the Time in Airports” is a mid-tempo rocker laden with electric riffage, about that melancholy feeling you get when you think you see someone you know — especially someone who has passed away or otherwise left you behind — in a public place.
Among all that, three stand out. “Flapping Your Broken Wings” is just a solid, vintage Handsome Family song. It recounts a tale of gleeful debauchery on a golf course late at night, and is filled with the delightful little details at which the poet Rennie Sparks so excels, like grass-stained underwear, “a rusted chain link fence, a golf cart in a ditch, and the colored flags you pulled from all the holes.” Priceless. “After We Shot the Grizzly” is a jaunty little song, with filigrees of jazz guitar from David Gutierrez, that describes a litany of horrible accidents that befall a party of explorers, told by the sole survivor (who may not survive much longer). And “Our Blue Sky” is an indictment of environmental degradation and anthropocentric religion: “Could you love God if he didn’t love you / more than rivers, snakes or wind/ Could you share heaven with black buzzing flies?” it asks, sung in lovely three-part harmony. The impression that this is something that could’ve been sung by a ’60s folk-rock group is heightened by the jangly 12-string guitar.
The Handsome Family continues to typify the spirit of true homemade music and art. They design their own album covers and take many of the photos, play small venues, and still record in their home, making records that are still released on a tiny independent label. All of the songs on Last Days of Wonder reflect the same attention to detail and craft. This music is far outside the tastes of mainstream America (though they’re much more popular in Europe), but it epitomizes the best things about American roots music.
(Carrot Top, 2006)