The Handsome Family
Last Days of Wonder
he Handsome Family’s latest album starts out with science and finishes with a shrug of the shoulders. In between we are introduced to a girl in grass stained underwear, a pigeon-loving inventor, and Beautiful William (who may or may not have been stopped in the airport by a man with a cane).
Over the course of ten years and seven albums, The Handsome Family has redefined American roots music. Taking their cues from country, folk, and Tin Pan Alley, husband and wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks have re-branded this heritage as their own. As an idea, the band is a study in contradictions. Inspired equally by Jim Reeves, Harry Smith’s folk anthology box set, and a copy of The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, they record lush, organic sounding albums, not alone in a mountain shack, or on analog, but at their Albuquerque, New Mexico home on a Mac.
The songs themselves are set in suburban strip malls, golf courses, and the Hotel New Yorker, and deal with science, nature, and the supernatural—sometimes all in the same song. Musically, more often than not, they are built around acoustic guitar. The augmentation however, can range from banjos and pedal steel to air organs and analog compressors. A scratchy old Mellotron tape loop even forms the backbone of “These Golden Jewels.”
Whereas earlier efforts flitted from murder ballads to the minutiae of everyday life with the brush of a bar chord, Last Days of Wonder seemingly focuses on the forgotten, the lost, and longing. These include loved ones (alive and dead), famed scientists, and, if you adopt the role of the narrator, yourself. It’s all aired in a manner that makes you wonder what we’re doing here, and if anyone even notices.
As a theme, it’s nothing new per se, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” And it’s our own rejected thoughts that flow through opening track “Your Great Journey,” a slow burning country lament, loaded with pedal steel. It’s hard not to empathize with Brett as he states: “When automatic sinks in airports no longer see your hands, and elevator doors close on you, when buses drive right past, when the only voice that answers, is the whir of a ceiling fan.” There’s hope in their unique brand of despair. Much of this can be attributed to Brett’s baritone—a voice that often sounds like Fozzie Bear drunk on whiskey and honey.
Several songs are Raymond Carver-esque slices of everyday life. “Bowling Alley Bar” is a straight narrative of a night in such an establishment. A Valium paced honk tonk, it’s full of barbed bon mots such as: “Cause it was never a waste of time, to drink beer by your side.”
At other times, the theme is taken to another place entirely. On “After We Shot the Grizzly” Rennie re-writes the Jim Reeves classic “Mary Jane,” to detail the survivor of an air ship crash, sailing home on a boat made of skin and bones to his “Mary.” It’s a gruesome love song full of crazy captains and deadly swamps, set to an accompaniment of clip clop rhythm and Django Reinhardt jazz guitar.
Science also provides a lyrical bent. The album opens with “four million tons of hydrogen exploding on the sun” and second track “Tesla’s Hotel Room” presupposes the inventor Nicola Tesla as a pigeon-lover. In the end though it’s the evocation of everyday life that closes it out. “Somewhere Else to Be,” a 50s style country croon, tells the tale of a guy ignoring the smile of a girl working a drive-through window because, as the title suggests, he has “somewhere else to be.” It’s a fitting end to an excellent album, as warm as the song’s protagonist is cold—and is another exemplification of The Handsome Family’s ability to put the ‘hum’ in humanity.
Reviewed by: Kevin Pearson
Reviewed on: 2006-08-17