Monday, March 19, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1118: The Handsome Family

After a long day I’m home late and tired, but at least it was a pleasant walk in the dusk of spring. Good thing I got home while there was still some light, because this next record can make any walk in the dark a little more unnerving – that’s part of the fun!

Disc 1118 is… In the Air
Artist: The Handsome Family

Year of Release: 2001

What’s up with the Cover? Handsome Family album photos are often hilariously credited in the liner notes, but no such luck this time. As a result we’re left with a boring picture of some rolling green hills.

How I Came To Know It: This was part of my massive purchase of Handsome Family albums direct from the band about a year ago. Thanks again to Brett and Rennie for being so awesome and response to your fans!

How It Stacks Up:  I have 12 Handsome Family albums. They are all great, so do not judge “In the Air” harshly that I rank it way down at #10. It is still good, but there is just too much good stuff to pick from with this band.

Ratings: 3 stars

The Handsome Family returns to the Odyssey again, bringing with them yet more Gothic terrors, idle murders and irrational fears. The fact that I can’t get enough of these dreadful things just proves how talented the Handsome Family are at writing songs about them.

“In the Air” is just a year before “Twilight” (reviewed just two albums ago at Disc 1116) and it has a similar sound, although with even stronger ties to old school and outlaw country sounds. A lot songs sound like a cross between the boom-chuck of Johnny Cash’s guitar and the lilting melodies of Johnny Horton. The title track in particular feels like it fell right out of 1960. These are songs for driving, or – if you can’t afford a car – hopping trains. Either way, they give a great sense of momentum even as they sing about mostly troubling topics.

The album opens strong with “Don’t Be Scared,” a gentle rolling melody that delivers its message well compositionally, with a song that makes you feel rested and at ease. “Don’t Be Scared” is almost a pastoral poem, and even though I don’t usually like it when songs fade out, here it gives the experience an enduring quality; as though you’ll continue to be alright long after the song is no longer playing.

This being the Handsome Family, not being scared won’t last long and soon enough the album is rollicking along describing a terrifying fear of bridges (In the Air”), the destruction of beauty (“A Beautiful Thing”), violent alcoholism (“So Much Wine”) and more than a few murders and strange disappearances.

As ever, Brett Sparks composes and plays all the music and sings and his wife Rennie writes all the lyrics. Brett is a great player who knows how to compose a melody that is new but seems timeless, and a voice that is high and haunting. Rennie has a natural talent for telling stories, and tends to use it to tell horrifying ones. Within the first couple of lines of any song she has captured your interest and hints at the darkness that will come. “Up Falling Rock Hill” leads off with:

“Up Falling rock Hill where the leaves swoop like bats
I shot my brother William five times in the back.”

And “Lie Down” begins:

“Tuesday at dawn Michael’s glasses washed ashore
With a Styrofoam box and two broken oars.”

Or “Poor Poor Lenore,” which starts:

“Poor, poor Lenore carried off by crows
As she wandered alone where the red oaks grow.”

Basically if you’re named in a Handsome Family song, there’s a good chance things aren’t going to go well for you.

While “In the Air” isn’t my favourite Handsome Family album (I found “A Beautiful Thing’s” melody awkward – although that might have been the point – and while I liked the idea of a milkman in love with the moon (“The Sad Milkman”) I wasn’t drawn into the dreamlike tale the way I think was intended.

However, these are very minor quibbles on an album where the biggest shortcoming is not being the same level as some other Handsome Family albums. This may not be the first album I’d recommend by them but if you want more murder and mystery in your life (and who doesn’t?) by all means pick up “In the Air” and settle in to get a little unsettled.

Best tracks: Don’t Be Scared, In The Air, So Much Wine, Lie Down

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