The Handsome Family’s Twilight, and Smothered and Covered

“So long to my dog Snickers, who ate Christmas tinsel
So long to Mr. Whiskers, who jumped out of a window
And to the family of gerbils who chewed out of their cage
and the little brown rabbit I ran over by mistake …”

cover artIf you don’t see the humor in this, the first verse of the Handsome Family’s “So Long,” then their Twilight CD is probably not for you. It’s even funnier, of course, set to a stately country waltz sung by Brett Sparks in his mournful, deadpan baritone.

The Sparkses, Brett and Rennie, are the Handsome Family, late of Chicago, currently of Albuquerque. Twilight, their fifth full-length recording of off-kilter Americana, lives up to the standard they set with the critically acclaimed Milk and Scissors and especially Through the Trees. It’s one witty, literate, depressing gem after another, leading up to the penultimate track, “So Long,” a litany of pets, plants and other creatures done in by the narrator’s cruelty, stupidity and carelessness; and the final track, “Peace in the Valley Once Again,” in which nature triumphs and takes over the place “when they closed the last shopping mall.”

Rennie, who writes the lyrics to which Brett puts the music, is a demented genius of the telling detail, the twist that makes the funny tragic and the sad hilarious. In “A Dark Eye,” another waltz with strumming guitar and plinking banjo, the writer observes the minute struggles of nature, and finds it looking back. It’s a little three-minute Appalachian-style morality tale, set “in a parking lot where a prairie once grew.”

Elsewhere, as in “The Snow White Diner,” she juxtaposes the banality of daily life with the shock of death, violence and crime, as the narrator sits in the titular diner watching a family sedan being pulled out of Lake Michigan. In the dirge-like “Passenger Pigeons,” a lover laments, “Ever since you moved out, I’ve been living in the park,” comparing the emptiness of lost love with the incomprehensible loss of an entire species of billions of birds.

The country-soul “There is a Sound,” is built around an arresting piano chord progression that immediately brings to mind the early Bee Gees. This song was written and recorded long before the horrific events of September 11, 2001, but the line, “The quiet sound that’s left behind when airplanes fall from the sky,” perfectly displays the Sparks’ sensitivity to the horror of those aspects of modern life to which we have become all too accustomed.

“Cold, Cold, Cold,” sets another type of old-time song, the ghost ballad, to a jaunty shuffle with a tune that’s an inverted echo of June Carter’s “Ring of Fire.” “I Know You Are There,” is a marching hymn to the god of schizophrenics, and “No One Fell Asleep” is a cheerful-sounding tune that would make a lovely Christmas carol, if it weren’t for lines about “abandoned buildings full of smoke/cars in ditches leaking blood/rivers full of drowning bugs.”

As with their previous effort In the Air, the Handsome Family recorded Twilight pretty much on their own, playing guitars, banjo, harmonica, melodica, autoharp, and a bunch of synthesized instruments including drums and, perhaps, a saw. Somehow, though, they’ve returned to a more warm and organic sound and feel than they captured on In the Air. It’s a welcome return to form, and a record I find quite entertaining and thought-provoking. If art is supposed to disturb, the Handsome Family are indeed artists.

(Carrot Top, 2001)

cover artIn the aptly titled Smothered and Covered, the Handsomes present a bunch of unreleased demos and tracks from various compilations, billed as “A personal gathering of rarities including odd covers, bathroom demos, and orphaned songs.”

The best moments on Smothered and Covered are the covers, particularly of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Brett’s gloomy baritone is perfect for this classic, and it’s set in a spare arrangement of acoustic guitar, bass and an appropriately churchy organ, with Rennie providing harmony on the chorus.

Other covers, uniformly good, lean mostly toward the creepy Appalachian death and murder ballad. There’s Bill Monroe’s incredibly sentimental “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling,” about the lingering death of a young girl; and the traditionals “Knoxville Girl” and “Banks of the Ohio,” in which young men inexplicably do in their sweethearts. “Trail of Time” is a cover of a cover; this Delmore Brothers song appeared on The Knitters’ “Poor Little Critter on the Road,” and was the Handsomes’ contribution to the Knitters’ tribute, “Poor Little Knitter on the Road.”

In the category of country kitsch is the cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Faraway Eyes,” a parodic trucker’s tale inspired by the songs of Red Sovine and Red Simpson. I love it.

The demo recordings span the Handsomes’ whole career arc. “The Last,” a slow, sad drinking song, is an early version of a track from their first release Odessa; “#1 Country Song” ended up on Milk and Scissors; and “Down in the Ground,” which Rennie sings, was on their definitive Through the Trees. All of these are actually pretty close to the final versions, except in hushed voices as befits home recordings made in a Chicago apartment.

The hymn-like “There’s a City” was originally intended for 2000’s In the Air, and the voyeuristic “Natalie Wood” was recorded for Twilight, “but without any snow, parking lots or birds, it just wouldn’t fit,” say the liner notes.

The rest of the CD comprises some experimental filler on “prepared piano” and an out-of-tune cello played like a guitar (you may want to program around these if you can after a listen or two); “The Wienermobile,” a brief song snippet mostly drowned out by the sounds of Chicago’s elevated trains, and the darkly hilarious anti-Christmas song, “Stupid Bells.”

The CD comes in a handmade paper folder with amusing and informative liner notes, reproductions of bizarre 19th Century woodcuts, and, if you’re lucky, an autograph. Available from the Handsome Family’s website and elsewhere.

(The Handsome Family, 2002)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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