Wednesday, August 30, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1047: The Handsome Family

This is my second Handsome Family review in the last three albums. What are the odds? Well, there are about 130 albums in my “new album” section and ten of those were Handsome Family, so the odds were 1 in 13. Math isn’t all that mysterious at this level. Higher math – now that stuff will mess you up.

Disc 1047 is…Last Days of Wonder
Artist: The Handsome Family

Year of Release: 2006

What’s up with the Cover? This is the last of six albums in a row where the Handsome Family put nature shots on their covers. I guess you could call this picture “the last day of wonder” if wonder is Mother Nature. The liner notes only indicate that this picture was “found in a hollow log.” I really hope that’s true.

How I Came To Know It: This was just one of many Handsome Family albums I discovered in a glut of music, after I ordered their entire discography direct from the band. Thanks Handsome Family!

How It Stacks Up:  I have 12 Handsome Family albums. Of those 12, I put “Last Days of Wonder” in at a respectable 7th.

Ratings: 4 stars

The last couple of Handsome Family reviews focused on their early sound, but on “Last Days of Wonder” we get to see the mature band, with seven albums under their belt. Here they have fully developed their weird, troubled and totally compelling blend of folk and rock for our listening pleasure.

Gone are the crunchy guitar riffs and feedback of early efforts, replaced with easygoing country beats, lilting melodies and richly detailed folk ballads. Along the way, the husband and wife team of Rennie and Brett Sparks have found a full and rounded sound that fills the room despite the relatively sparse arrangements.

I was impressed anew with the production values on the album after I read in the liner notes that it was put together in their home studio by Brett Sparks using “a Mac and lots of wires and microphones.” I have a feeling they are deliberately selling themselves short, because this is a far cry from lo-fi. Along the way Sparks has become as skilled a producer as he is a musician.

Interesting decisions abound, including a jazzy trombone on “Tesla’s Hotel Room” and what I suspect is a Theremin on “These Golden Jewels.” The latter of these songs, with its vaudevillian circus show feel and unorthodox syncopation sounds like it was inspired by the future ghost of Tom Waits. It wasn’t a favourite for me musically, but it was hard not to like on the grounds of creativity alone.

Tesla’s Hotel Room” tells of the life and death of Nikola Tesla, giving specific detail to the life of one of history’s great inventors. It is a brilliant example of Rennie Sparks’ exceptional talent as a writer, as she weaves his inventions, diet and cause of death all into a single stanza:

“But Tesla grew thin eating only Saltines
Going days in his lab without any sleep
Dreaming of God as an X-ray beam, he was
Hit by a cab while crossing the street.”

Well, technically Tesla lives for a while after the accident, but don’t worry, Rennie covers that as well before she’s done.

On “After We Shot the Grizzly” she writes of a dystopian future, and a last band of humans trying to make it through the wilderness “after the airship crashed.” What airship? Hey, it’s a short story – they start best in the middle of the action. The song gets dark from there, including adding the devouring of the pack horses, the killing a tiny antelope and the death of the titular grizzly. Then they pack on fever and disease, internal strife and in the end I believe it descends into cannibalism.

I tried to describe this song’s plot to my coworkers over a coffee today and their reaction was “that’s all in one song?” It sure is, and they even make it a bit of a creepy love song along the way. Such is the power of poetry, my friends.

As ever, the Handsome Family are masters of the unreliable narrator. On “Beautiful William” the narrator can’t understand why William inexplicably disappears one day. However, given that the narrator later teams up with “Polly from Red River” and “Rose from Green Falls” to break into his house and trash the place, we can hardly blame William for making himself scarce. He’s probably fleeing them.

Brett Sparks may not write the words, but he sells them beautifully, with his rich and airy voice telling the story like some kind of ancient troubadour recanting tales around a campfire or tavern hearth.

Songs like “Beautiful William” and “Tesla’s Hotel Room” are appropriately somber affairs, and the drunken outings on “Flapping Your Broken Wings” (delivered with a touch of mania) and “Bowling Alley Bar” (delivered with a drunken sway) further demonstrate the band knows just what feeling to infuse into the music to score the action at hand.

When I rolled this album I was a bid trepidatious. After all, I’d just reviewed one of their records, and a third only 30 albums before that. Would I have anything else to say? Fortunately the Handsome Family never fail to deliver a fresh set of inspirational tales, with a perfectly selected musically accompaniment to drive the story home.

Best tracks: Your Great Journey, Tesla’s Hotel Room, After We Shot the Grizzly, Flapping Your Broken Wings, Beautiful William, All the Time in Airports  

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