The roots of country music twist their way deep into some pretty dark territory. The cimmerian side of human nature has long been a major theme in American music, running like a vein of black coal deep under the roots of the mountains. “It’s dark as a dungeon, way down in the mine,” Merle Travis sang a half-century or more ago.
The Handsome Family have tapped into that vein. But where Travis and others use the mine as metaphor for the dungeon, Brett and Rennie Sparks climb right down into the dungeon itself. Once there, they’re not content to just look around. They dig in and get their hands dirty, playing with whatever implements of torture they find lying around. They’re not even averse to strapping themselves on the rack and giving it a spin or two, either. The worst thing is — or maybe it’s the best thing — they make it sound like fun.
Make no mistake, this is country music, from the Mother-Maybelle-on-Quaaludes “Down in the Ground” to the Hank-Thompson-on-acid “Cathedrals”. Every good old-time country album has at least one song about a church — but this one isn’t about the little brown church in the vale. “The cathedral in Cologne looks like a spaceship,” Brett sings in his strong, smooth baritone. The song soon veers into existential angst, how “all of us are swept away like breadcrumbs”, and ends with bleak images of snow falling on ice machines at deserted Midwestern motels.
There are 13 songs here, about 45 minutes of music. You wouldn’t want to listen to The Handsome Family for much more than that at a sitting, lest you be tempted to emulate the characters in their songs, who have a penchant for doing away with each other and themselves in all kinds of inventive ways. Hardly surprising, given the lives of the musicians. According to their official biographies, Brett is bipolar and Rennie, who writes most of the lyrics, is under treatment for depression.
The production by Brett and Dave Trumfio is clean and serves the music well. Brett and Rennie play autoharp, banjo, guitar, bass, keyboards and other instruments. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, with whom the Handsome Family toured in 1997, adds tasteful vocal harmonies and guitar parts to several songs.
Through the Trees is all about love and loss and longing and death. It’s about staring depression and existential despair in the face, and making music from it. Images recur throughout the songs: snow, ice, wind, falling leaves, howling dogs. Lest I make this all sound unpleasant, rest assured, it’s not. Through the Trees is often quite funny, in a gallows-humor sort of way. The surreal imagery of the lyrics, characters who would be at home in a Richard Brautigan novel, Brett’s deadpan delivery and the quirky playing of weird combinations of instruments, like banjo and synthesized tuba, make this an entertaining listen.
Star-crossed lovers who kill themselves are a common theme in folk music, and supplies the CD’s title in the refrain of the song “Down in the Valley of Hollow Logs.” “I feel you rushing through my veins like the wind rushing through the trees,” says the boy to the girl, before they both plunge a knife in their breasts. In these songs, nature is cold, sinister, dark and prone to random violence, but so are many of the people. Snow falls, cliffs loom, snakes bite, trees lean and fall, wells and rivers and oceans swallow people into their cold depths. Two boys come upon a swan sleeping in the reeds and kill it with stones. In the one song that Rennie sings, “Down in the Ground,” dogs bark, crickets scream, a snake eats a mouse, and “red worms circle like sharks” down in the ground.
In “My Ghost,” Brett sings Rennie’s words about his experience in a mental hospital. “Here in the bipolar ward … I won’t get any cookies or tea till I stop quoting Nietzche and brush my teeth and comb my hair.”
The Handsome Family are true American originals, dragging traditional music into the post-modern age, sometimes kicking and screaming … or is that hysterical laughter?
(Carrot Top, 1998)