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Stories of the City, Stories of the Trees

The Handsome Family takes the folk back from the folkies.

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Where you're from and where you are does a lot to form your everyday life. If it's cold outside, you have to wear a coat. If it's raining, you bring an umbrella. What you encounter outside may seem mundane and uninteresting, but in the hands of the Handsome Family, that place out there we call the real world can be the perfect setting for what may be the new face of American folk music.

The Handsome Family, a husband and wife duo that originally formed in Chicago, recently moved to New Mexico. There, as the duo's Rennie Sparks said, "You're always aware of the desert, and the mountains surround the town so you always have a sense that the town ends and the rest of the world begins, whereas in Chicago, or a really big city like that, you're always surrounded by buildings and it's really easy to forget that there is a world out there, a natural world, of forests and rivers and things like that. I found myself a lot in Chicago replacing stars with street lights and replacing song birds with pigeons and things like that that you do when you haven't seen anything pretty in a while."

The Handsome Family writes flash-fiction folk music where the streetlights can be as pretty as stars. Each song is a place unto itself--as with any good literature, the images, if sparse enough, can invoke a sort of universality. The settings in Rennie's lyrics are often frightening and at the same time familiar; no matter where you are, the songs sound like they are about where you are.

Twilight, the Handsome Family's fifth album, was recorded, like all of its albums, in the Sparks living room. Brett (guitar and vocals) and Rennie (songwriter, autoharp) record on a Mac, which is where they were when I called them the other day to talk about the new album and their tour, which brings them to Tucson January 9 at Club Congress. Their heater was so loud they could barely hear me (they live in Albuquerque, where it was actually snowing), and it was dead quiet on my street in Brooklyn, so that just goes to show you that one can never know everything about a particular place. Which is precisely what many of the songs on Twilight hint at: The city is never quite what you think, and nature is never quite as nice and safe as people would like you to think.

"While in the past we've written records that take place in the woods or up in the sky or strange places," said Rennie, "this one was definitely much more in the more familiar world of urban environment. But it's not exactly normal stories of the city."

Listen to the first song, "The Snow White Diner," and you'll understand. The speaker is sitting "eating hash browns in the Snow White Diner" while outside "they're pulling a car up from the bottom of the frozen lake." The car was driven into the lake a by a woman with her kids in the back seat because "she'd lost her job and she didn't want her kids to be poor." The song is a perfect soundtrack to a Richard Estes painting--the details in the diner, like the hash browns and the brand of the car, become the story: how the mundane aspects of life become super real in certain contexts. Your everyday bright and shiny diner maybe isn't all that clean and innocent after all.

But every Handsome Family song isn't only about setting; the songs also have characters, and tone, and something always happens. "I'm a storywriter, really, is what I am more than anything," explained Rennie. "I don't really write poems, I write stories. I want things to have a story so that someone could say, 'What's this song about?' and you can quickly tell them the plot. Maybe it doesn't explain the story but at least it gives you a sense of something happening."

In Rennie's song-stories, "There's a blind man who hears angels. He hears them whispering inside potatoes." A billion passenger pigeons get "clubbed and shot, netted, gassed and burned, until there was nothing left but miles of empty nests." But there are also "birds in the darkness who lead lost dogs off highways, steer boats past icebergs, save children stuck in wells," and no one falls asleep alone. Images that seem almost macabre always end up somehow revealing something breathtaking. "I just wanted to write about things that maybe could make life feel beautiful even when you're in the middle of a man-made world," said Rennie.


THE HANDSOME FAMILY was formed about seven years ago when Brett talked Rennie into writing the lyrics to the songs he'd been crafting. Their first album, 1995's Odessa, has been described as more punk-influenced than their subsequent albums, and quite a bit darker. Later albums, like Through the Trees (1998), where Wilco's Jeff Tweedy added some vocals, and In the Air (2000), were met with widespread adoration. It seems there are few who can't find something venerating in Brett Sparks' deep and just the slightest bit off-key croon and Rennie Sparks' haunting stories.

The music behind the lyrics is mostly orchestrated by Brett, with Rennie occasionally adding autoharp and backing vocals. It has tinges of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, but the music walks that fine line between old country and folk. Music of the people, for the people. Right down to the fact that the Sparks record on their computer in their living room.

"I record at home. I prefer to do things that way," said Brett. "I like bands that do things that way, bands like Grandaddy and Giant Sand who make records that sound really comfortable and at ease with themselves. I just like the familiarity of it, the ability to just do it whenever I want to and I don't have to pay money. If you're inclined to do it, it's very simple. I mean all you have to do is just read some software manuals or buy a tape machine or something. People are really intimated by engineers and recording studios when they shouldn't be."

"It's sort of folky in a way, too, doing things on your own and not spending a lot of money on what you're doing, just using the instruments that are at hand," added Rennie.

"Computers: the new folk instrument of the 21st century. Everybody has one. Nobody uses them to their fullest potential," said Brett.

"I'm waiting for that next big folk revival so we can take the folk back from the folkies," said Rennie. "It is kind of a weird situation because there is a whole folk world out there that finds us a little too off-putting and dark, because a lot of people see folk music as happy music that you sing with your kids. Which is so odd, because songs like 'On Top of Old Smokey' and 'My Darling Clementine,' which we routinely teach our children, are really dark songs. People just stopped listening to the words. And they turn them into these sing-song things: 'Oh my darlin' oh my darlin ... .' Well, the next thing you know she's in the river, drowning."

In the end (and there's always an end to a good story), the people and the animals and the birds die in the Handsome Family's songs. But it's never depressing. When Brett sings, "So long to my dog Snickers who ate Christmas tinsel ... So long to the goldfish who ate each other's tails" with a twangy banjo behind him, it's so sad it's funny. Or so funny it's sad. Because hey, that's life.

The songs then become something akin to Hans Christian Andersen or Grimm's fairy tales--and I mean the real ones, where the little mermaid feels as if she's walking on knives with every step and the red dancing shoes dance the girl toward her death; folk tales that rest ever so slightly on hyperbole and magical realism, just enough to get your attention.

"The real stories are so powerful," said Rennie. And truth is always weirder than fiction.

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