Saturday, August 26, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1045: The Handsome Family

After a lovely night out last night I am feeling a little less than 100% this morning. It’s nothing that a greasy brunch won’t solve, though.

Disc 1045 is…Odessa
Artist: The Handsome Family

Year of Release: 1994

What’s up with the Cover? A man and his dog. I had all kinds of clever one liners for this photo, but I couldn’t top the actual liner note, which reads: “Cover photo found in the dumpster behind our apartment and used without permission. Sorry.” Awesome.

How I Came To Know It: I discovered the band through the “True Detective” soundtrack, and got most of their albums – including this one – in a huge mail order direct from the band.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 12 Handsome Family albums. It is hard to rank them because most of them came into my house in a giant glut, and I haven’t had a chance to properly enjoy them individually. That said, I’ll put “Odessa” in at number 6.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Odessa” is the Handsome Family’s first album, and they are still finding their sound. The lilting melodies and creepy murder ballads are here, but so is a garage rock sound that you would expect to hear on a Seattle grunge album, not a folk record. Coming to the band through their more recent albums first, this was initially jarring, but after a few listens I realized how great the combination is.

The opening track, “Here’s Hopin’” is a fuzzed out guitar song, full of feedback and grit. It is a simple, slowly changing chord progression with Brett Sparks’ vocals floating back in the mix, half rock star, half ghostly message from beyond. It wasn’t the folk music like I was expecting, but it didn’t matter.

When the Handsome Family rock out (as they do often on “Odessa”) the influence of Nirvana is palpable, which – given this album came out in 1994 – is totally understandable.

The band completely shifts gear with “Arlene,” a murder ballad folk song about a man who kidnaps a local waitress and takes her to an old cave. This song is dangerous because the tune is so catchy you want to sing along, but if you do it in mixed company people will think you’re disturbed. The song skillfully navigates around the gore, hinting at it without ever spelling it out. Instead the focus is on the troubled way the protagonist sees the world, and Arlene’s obvious terror at his unwanted advances. The petulant way he sings:

“Arlene, you wouldn’t even let me hold your hand
When I stopped you in the road you just turned and ran.”

Clearly implies we should be feeling sorry for him, but instead we just feel for Arlene’s plight. The tension of how we’re being presented the facts by the killer and how we’re receiving them is pure genius.

The song styles vary, sometimes rocking out, sometimes light and folksy, and sometimes a mix of the two, such as on “One Way Up” where the song is principally a mournful folk song, but with a couple of feedback-filled electric guitar solos in the middle of it all. The connection between Brett’s mournful singing and the angst of the guitar ably captures externalized confusion and internalized rage.

As ever, chief writer Rennie Sparks is gifted with the turn of a phrase. On “Giant Ant” she fearlessly mixes the beautiful and the troubling:

“Butterflies are monsters when you look at them too close
And once you touch their wings they’ll never fly again
Yellow is for buttercups and streams of hot piss
Red is for I love you and hemorrhages”

Halfway through the record, “Water Into Wine” delivers a throwback thirties devotional. The Handsome Family play it straight but in the context of the rest of the album it becomes ironic. They send up the simplicity of the song simply by keeping a straight face and letting its proximity to all the confusion and murder of the songs around it to serve as the counterpoint.

My love for the Handsome Family is new but fierce, and I’ve bought so many of their albums in a short span it will take some time to fully grok their body of work. In this light, I’m happy that the first two albums I’ve reviewed were their first two. “Milk and Scissors” was the beginning of the sound that would endure. “Odessa” showcases their range, and how their career could have gone in almost any direction, because good writing is good writing; whether the guitar is plugged in or not is an afterthought.

Best tracks: Here’s Hopin’, Arlene, One Way Up, Giant Ant, Everything that Rises Must Converge, The Last, Moving Furniture Around

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