Monday, June 12, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1016: The Handsome Family

As I alluded on my previous entry, I went a little overboard recently and bought this next artist’s entire discography direct from the band’s website. So if you end up seeing a lot of album reviews for this band in the next little while, now you’ll know why.

What can I say - when I fall for a band, I fall hard.

Disc 1016 is…Milk and Scissors
Artist: The Handsome Family

Year of Release: 1996

What’s up with the Cover? Where you might expect to see a depiction of milk and/or scissors we instead get two dogs. Maybe they are named “Milk” and “Scissors” although those aren’t exactly classic dog names.

How I Came To Know It: I found out about the Handsome Family when their song “Far From Any Road” was used for the opening credits to the TV show “True Detective,” but since then I’ve delved pretty hard into their catalogue, as noted in the teaser above. My mass mail order included “Milk and Scissors” (and a lot more besides).

How It Stacks Up:  I have 12 Handsome Family albums, which is all of them other than one obscure German import. Of the 12 that I have, “Milk and Scissors” is solid, albeit not my favourite. It could be as high as seven or as low as nine depending on my mood. Let’s split the difference and go with eighth, with the proviso I might change my mind later. I’m whimsical like that.

Ratings: 3 stars

Sometimes you just feel an instant connection with a band, and so it was when I first heard the Handsome Family, and most every time since.  “Milk and Scissors” is one of those times; an album filled with haunting vocals and dark and troubling imagery that is not for the faint of heart.

This is only the Handsome Family’s second album but their signature sound is already starting to come into focus; ghostly, lilting melodies that snake their way mysteriously through songs like a river winding its way through a deep forest.

This album is the last to feature the band’s third full member – drummer Mike Werner – but the Handsome Family are principally the husband and wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks.

Brett is a gifted musician on multiple instruments who writes the music. His ghostly vocals range from the urgent lover heard calling across a lake at night, to the ethereal and tormented voice of a lost soul that drowned in it. He tends to sing lower in his register, and the effect makes everything feel just a bit more…creepy. His natural talent for phrasing adds extra gravitas to the narratives.

The lyrics are a star of this show, and those are all written by Rennie Sparks. While I love a good instrumental as much as the next guy there is no denying I am a sucker for a well-turned phrase and a good story, and Rennie is the mistress of both.

As with any good tale, these songs have multiple layers. The tortured exploration of mental illness on the opening track, “Lake Geneva” is layered with the dread of existential angst of a hero of modern science exploring the mysteries of the world:

“Albert Einstein trembled when he was that time was water
Seeping through the rafters to put out this burning world.”

After all, if Einstein’s nerve fails in the face of the world’s secrets, what chance do the rest of us have? It is delightfully fun spine-shivering stuff.

On “Drunk by Noon” we catch the desperate and impotent energy of the addict:

“Sometimes I flap my arms like a hummingbird
   just to remind myself I’ll never fly
Sometimes I burn my arms with cigarettes
   just to pretend I won’t scream when I die.”

At least that’s what I take from this song; Rennie Sparks’ lyrics are so thick and rich they stretch your mind in a lot of directions. That’s the joy – and terror – of them.

The album also features songs about historical figures from early America. “Emily Shore 1819-1839” explores the story of a woman who documented her agonizing death from tuberculosis (consumption at the time) in a journal. “Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear” imagines what Earhart’s last thoughts might have been as her plane went down.

The album isn’t all folk. There are also occasional rock elements, mostly in the form of heavy reverb electric guitars. Although not as heavily grunge-influenced as the band’s first album “Odessa” they are worth noting, and add a rawness to songs like “Winnebago Skeletons.”  Despite this, it is clear that the band has a solid grounding in very traditional folk music forms, finding a way to explore those forms (here and on the many brilliant albums that follow) in a way that is both timeless and compelling.

Even when the Handsome Family is being derivative (as they are on “#1 Country Song”) they are doing it deliberately. The song may be a very basic country song about not getting the girl of your dreams, but the title makes it clear that they have their tongue planted firmly in their cheeks. The Handsome Family could make commercial pulp country music, they just choose not to do so. While this decision has likely not led them to riches, we – their listeners – are definitely the richer for it.

Best tracks: Lake Geneva, Drunk By Noon, Emily Shore 1819-1839, Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear

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