The Handsome Family’s Unseen

cover art, a frog looking at the moon, by Rennie SparksThe Handsome Family’s 10th album Unseen starts off as strong as anything they’ve ever done.

Got a tattoo of a snake and a ski mask on my face / when I woke up in the ditch behind the Stop & Go,” is the first line Brett Sparks sings on the opening track “Gold.” The arrangement is uber-Western, a straight shuffle beat and lots of twangy guitars, a multi-tracked chorus formed by Brett’s harmonized “ahhhh”s echoing behind his lead vocals. I’ve been a serious fan of The Handsome Family for so long – nearly 20 years now – that it’s hard to be objective. But I think it’s the most arresting way to start to an album since “Weightless Again” kicked off 1997’s breakthrough Through the Trees.

The Handsome Family is the husband-wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks of Albuquerque, NM. It’s their first release since they gained worldwide notice when their song “Far From Any Road” was picked up as the True Detective Season 1 theme song by HBO. It’s also their first that’s not on Chicago’s Carrot Top label, this one coming out on their own imprint Milk & Scissors via Virtual Label. But this album continues their trademark blend of traditional country-western instrumentation and lyrics that range from the hyper-realistic to decidedly surreal, sometimes from one line to the next.

The album’s title is also its theme, as Rennie, the lyricist, explores various aspects of sight, light, and things hidden from view. Like the money that disappears from gamblers’ hands in Las Vegas, as depicted in “The Silver Light”; or the things that crawl in the yard or hide in rivers and seas, waiting to reclaim the earth from humans in the ironically lilting waltz “Underneath The Falls”; or something under the stairs behind “The Red Door” in an eerie tale of a man welcoming as his bride the woman who appears mysteriously at his door in the night; or just about everything that you don’t see anymore in the ludicrously over-the-top “Back In My Day.”

“We had maps that unfolded back in my day,” Brett sings in his delicious bass-baritone voice; “you could drink from the river, we had gods made of clay.” From there Rennie’s lyrics go on to ever-greater heights of surrealism about how different it was, “way back in the days you’re too young to have seen, when the nights were darker, longer and deep.”

Among their best portraits ever of the American Southwestern desert is “King Of Dust,” which seems to be the rambling thoughts of someone trapped in a wrecked truck after a crash. “But there are no golden cities,” Brett sings as his character thinks of the Spanish conquistadores, “only trailer parks and dust.”

Jason Toth, who has toured with them for a few years now, continues on drums, and Unseen also has contributions from Alex McMahon on guitars, baritone guitar and pedal steel, and David Gutierrez on mandolin and Dobro. It all adds up to yet another lovely, dark, mysterious, humorous and surreal album of songs in classic Handsome Family style.

(Milk & Scissors, 2016)

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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