July 27, 2006

A fruit plate isn’t the first thing you’d normally associate with The Handsome Family.

Death? Yes. Decay? Sure. Overturned shopping carts? Why not?

But it’s a fruit plate Brett Sparks carries on stage. Offering it to the crowd before realizing there’s only enough for him.

It’s these tiny interactions that make The Handsome Family, husband and wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks, as endearing as their songs are exponential.

They are a Johnny and June for the download generation; a seemingly sober Rennie (she’s drinking Diet Coke) keeps Brett, who downs three bottles of beer during the set, in check. But it’s Brett who counts off all the songs, songs that are full of suicide, ignorant automatic sinks, and sad milkmen. Songs, like the great Appalachian folks tales of yore, that tell stories of woe and betide, hope and beauty, liquor and everyday life.

In an age where country music has become a commodity, much like milk, pasteurized and sterile, The Handsome Family are a welcome respite from the factory flavor of the commercialized soul pop country pap currently circumnavigating the charts.

On this tour, drummer, Jason Toth, and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Dorocke have joined the two-some, providing intricate inter-play on several slower songs, and a backdrop of sound for others.

“My Sisters Tiny Hands” cascades like a champagne fountain, crystal clear. “Weightless Again” loses its air organ intro, but not its appeal. “Bottomless Hole,” from 2003’s Singing Bones, is turned into a rollicking, rocking romp, with Brett enunciating his lyrics as if they’re stuck in his teeth. Spitting them out like shrapnel.

Other times his words drop like rotten apples from a tree – part country crooner, part Mark E. Smith.

Brett, with a baritone so low, you could run a river through it and call it a valley, steps aside on a couple of occasions to let Rennie take the reins. She also provides the in-between song banter. Comic fodder that doesn’t feel out of place in the World Café setting, which, with its table and seating setting, low lights and candles, is more akin with a comedy club than a music venue.

This doesn’t distract from the songs, which they pull from every album except 1996’s Milk and Scissors, showcasing a rich and varied back catalogue.

They finish, aptly, with “So Long,” a paean to dead pets, before returning for a two-song encore, fruit plate in hand. Launching into song, Brett wishes out loud for a napkin. You see; it’s not just the Rolling Stones who take country music to the masses and come back with sticky fingers.

Kevin Pearson | 2:43 pm

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