Wednesday, March 14, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1116: The Handsome Family

The CD Odyssey continues with one of my favourite new (to me) bands.

Disc 1116 is… Twilight
Artist: The Handsome Family

Year of Release: 2001

What’s up with the Cover? Twilight in a decaying forest. I can’t tell if this is a painting or a picture, but there is no painting credit in the liner notes. The picture credit reads “I don’t know where any of these photos came from. I woke up in a pool of blood and there they were. – Rennie”. Never change, Handsome Family.

How I Came To Know It: I fell hard for the Handsome Family a year ago and bought all their albums in a package deal direct from the band. It was a lot of fun, and a good deal too.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 12 Handsome Family albums. Of those 12, “Twilight” is one of the better ones. I’ll rank it 4th.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Twilight” is yet another haunting, troubled mix of metaphysical dread, supernatural experiences and offbeat observations of nature courtesy of husband and wife team Brett and Rennie Sparks. It sounds a lot like other Handsome Family albums you may have heard, which is to say, really good.

The Handsome Family have a style all their own, mixing early country and western, modern indie and elements of old school fifties pop crooners. By this stage of their career the hard rock elements are mostly gone, but don’t let that fool you – this music is the kind of edgy that sneaks up on you.

Most of that edge is generated by the combination of Brett’s haunting echoing vocals matched to Rennie’s creepy lullaby lyrics. The topics on the album run the gamut, including environmental observations, Lovecraftian meditations, ghost stories and dead animals. These are songs you’d sing to kids at bedtime if you wanted them to stay up all night, too scared to sleep, or maybe just over-stimulated by the majesty and mystery of the world around them.

As befits an album called “Twilight” there is a sense of decay and fading light that threads its way through these songs. The ladies in “The Snow White Diner” are deaf, and the man who hears angels in “Gravity” is blind. When there is sound it tends to be an unwholesome mix of nature and civilization, sighing together. Or as Brett sings at one point:

“There is a sound sung by the sea
And plastic bags caught in trees.”

Until I heard the line I’d never put those two sounds together, now my mind can’t separate them.

A Dark Eye” captures that uneasy feeling you get from time to time that something isn’t right, that you’re being watched:

“In the parking lot where I waited alone
A white bird sat sleeping on a broken pay phone.
There came a black beetle dragging off a green fly
Underneath a parked car and then out of sight.
And I felt a dark eye turn its gaze upon me
As if the earth could see. A dark eye fell on me.”

The Handsome Family write creepy like no one else, but the confessional tones of Brett as he sings the lines makes the whole experience feel comforting, as if you are being wrapping in a blanket of weirdness. It isn’t for everyone, and it is definitely not for the easily troubled. Fans of horror though, come and listen.

Cold, Cold, Cold” is a suspenseful ghost story. A man drives across a field where people sometimes disappear only to see a woman weeping in the frozen snow. He gets out of the car to investigate and maybe lend a hand but - this being a Handsome Family song - things get strange quick:

“She drifted away in the swirling cold
down through the fields and their frozen rows.
But I heard her howl, I heard her moan.
She called my name in the swirling snow.
When I turned to run back to my car
There was nothing waiting but her frozen arms.”

Musically, “Twilight” is less interesting than some other Handsome Family albums, but while the melodies are very basic, they rise and fall in an easy cadence. This serves as a non-intrusive backdrop to the black humour, horror and metaphysical contemplation the songs are obsessed with.

The production is also rough around the edges (according to the liner notes the album was recorded on a Macintosh G3 using Pro Tools) but none of this stands in the way of Rennie Sparks twisted insightful poetry, and Brett’s reverent and committed delivery as he converts them to song. “Twilight” is a long walk in a heavy wood but if you’re not afraid of the dark, it’s a walk worth taking.

Best tracks: The Snow White Diner, Passenger Pigeons, A Dark Eye, There Is a Sound, Gravity, Cold Cold Cold, So Long

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