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Read the Handsome Family Bio and Discography

saki 036 Handsome Family Singing Bones CD

The new record by The Handsome Family is called “Singing Bones.” There are songs about haunted Wal-Marts, lovers who chase the fire in streetlights,the madness of very deep holes, a lake that can only be visited in dreams, and the shadows that whisper inside a modern, office building. It is The Handsome Family’s 6th CD with Carrot Top Records.

“ Singing Bones” is designed to rip holes in the veil between this world and the next. It should surely drive most listeners into a severely altered state in which even chicken bones at the bottom of a garbage pail across the street will begin to sing.

The Handsome Family is Brett and Rennie Sparks who live on a quiet street in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Every afternoon at 4 p.m. the ice cream man rolls slowly by in a white, dented van that plays a mournful version of “Greensleeves.”

Here—sequestered in their secret, garage studio soundproofed by a wall of poisonous, prickly pear—the Handsome Family recorded, “Singing Bones.” The Sparks’ relied on their usual array of pawnshop instruments and mail-order software. Brett learned to play the pedal steel and the musical saw for this record and was also able to lure several local musicians into the studio using a beer can on a string. Once caged and starved, it was easy convince a few of them to embellish the new Handsome Family songs with trumpet, mandolin, bowed bass, and violin. In their live performances, the Handsome Family will sometimes be two and a minidisc player and sometimes be three (when they can squeeze Brett’s brother Darrell into the car with his drum set). But always their live performances will strive to be as beautiful and creepy as a thorny rose twisting around the bleached jawbone of a dead horse.

 

saki 027 Handsome Family Twilight CD
Welcome to The Handsome Family's fifth CD “Twilight”—a half-lit world of golden street lights, haunted parking lots, and invisible birds. “Twilight,” is, in part, a farewell to Chicago where The Handsome Family have lived for the last twelve years. The CD recalls the near-darkness of night in the city where the flickering TVs and traffic lights hide the sky above.

The Handsome Family is a husband-and-wife songwriting team. Brett and Rennie Sparks have been married for thirteen years, but have only collaborated musically for the last seven. While managing to stay married and play together in a band, they also manage to compose some of the most gripping songs in recent memory, with Rennie supplying the hypnotic lyrics and Brett the slightly quirky, classic country music. On their latest album, you will hear guitar, banjo, piano, musical saw, accordion, Autoharp, and melodica as well as a mismatched array of mostly live cymbals and drums.

Most Handsome Family songs combine beautiful, almost lilting melodies with lyrics that often paint modern fairy tales full of fright, despair, death, & alienation. While their trademarks are still intact, there is actually a glimmer of light in the darkness this time around. Perhaps the saddest song ever written, "Passenger Pigeons", is now offset by songs like the hopeful "Birds You Cannot See", the nostalgic "I Know You Are There", and "Peace in the Valley Once Again", a story of natural rebirth after modern society finally crumbles and stumbles to halt. Not to be overlooked, their new live favorite, "So Long", says final good-byes with winks and smiles to all of creatures great and small who have left their lives by natural and unnatural means.

As soon as the record was completed, The Handsome Family fled Chicago in the dead of night and have now taken up residence in an old stucco house in Albuquerque, New Mexico where they hope to train rattlesnakes to be world class pickpockets.

“Twilight,” like their last CD, was recorded at home using a Macintosh G3, Pro Tools and a lot of wires and blinking LCD's.

 

saki 023 The Handsome Family-In the Air CD

“Brett & Rennie Sparks live in a mysterious rural underworld filled with chilling tales & exhilarating harmonies.” - CMJ
The Handsome Family rise out of the shadowy forest on their new CD, In the Air, & up into a world of gypsy moths, circling crows, & seeds in the wind. Fireflies in the summer night, rocks rolling uphill, clothes thrown in the snow, whispering waves, & milky moonlight all find themselves circling the night sky of the Handsome Family's latest effort. Murder & love, terror & serenity, sadness & joy--all of these feelings float like leaves lingering a moment within the tracks of In the Air. It exudes the fragile beauty of handwoven lace covering the bloody corpse of your long lost love who's been disemboweled by a wolf pack; a record that doesn't shy away from the essential bittersweetness of human life.

The new CD was again recorded in their living room. All sounds were captured on a Macintosh G3 (No tape! Hurrah!). This time the trusty drum machine from Through the Trees was replaced by Brett clunking on various dented cymbals, warped snares, dusty tambourines & a plastic garbage pail. Underneath the guitar & bass you'll hear autoharp, mandolin, melodica, harmonica, as well as church choirs, English horns, & pipe organs culled from the depths of our trusty noise-makers. Guest musician Andrew Bird added a layer of the diabolic with his virtuoso violin.

Who are the Handsome Family? Husband & wife, Brett & Rennie Sparks have been collaborating as songwriters for over five years. Brett, the bipolar Texan, writes the music. He spent his early years listening to opera & eating biscuits & gravy. Rennie, the lyricist, grew up on the shores of Long Island where she swears she never entered a room without spotting a spider on the wall.
The last Handsome Family CD, Through the Trees, brought the band worldwide attention (i.e. they quit their day jobs). Touring took them through the USA both alone & with the Mekons, as well as to the United Kingdom with sidetrips to Holland, Norway & Belgium. England's Uncut magazine named Through the Trees the "Best New Country Album of the Year" & Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune pronounced it one of the Best 10 Records of the Year as well as the number one local release. Chicago Sun-Times music writer Jim DeRogatis placed it as one of the ten most important albums to ever come out of Chicago.
“Each song is like an abridged Flannery O'Connor story read aloud by Johnny Cash, hovering somewhere between the metaphysical & the mundane.”- NME

 

Throuh the Trees Cover
saki020 The Handsome Family-Through the Trees CD

"Some of the greatest songs in the world in the past few years have been written by The Handsome Family" -- Randall Roberts, Riverfront Times, St. Louis, MO 10/15/97

The Handsome Family create sparse, rural, story-songs that rise and fall like an abandoned farmhouse full of crickets. The band is Brett and Rennie Sparks, a husband and wife collaboration that teeters between The Honeymooners and Macbeth.

Their CD, “Through the Trees,” is a camping trip in a forest of falling trees, sleeping swans, red worms, and hollow logs. Pick-up trucks stall on snowy roads. Lizards stream from horse skulls. Lonely drunks read Moby Dick and feed boiled eggs to stray dogs. Musically, the CD marks a return to simpler, more transparent arrangements. There is a departure from the traditional guitar, bass, drums paradigm and an exploration of alternative instrumental pairings such as autoharp and drum machine, banjo and tuba, dobro and melodica. The songwriting focuses on beautiful melodies to illuminate the bittersweetness of the words. Basic tracks were recorded in the Sparks' living room by Brett with additional tracks recorded by Dave Trumfio (Pulsars) at Trumfio Towers (Dave's living room and bathroom). The record was mixed by Dave and produced by Dave and Brett. Jeff Tweedy (Wilco/Uncle Tupelo) sang back-up on several songs and added some pretty guitar.

Brett, a manic-depressive Texan, writes the music. He spent his early years listening to opera and eating biscuits and gravy. He's done post-graduate work on the vocal polyphony of Johanus Ockegem, the great medieval Flemish composer, as well as delivered hole openers to oil rigs. He also spent two weeks in a state mental hospital after a full-blown manic phase brought on by the Santa Claus collection at The House on the Rock in Wisconsin.Rennie, the lyricist, grew up on the shores of Long Island, NY where she spent her childhood watching horseshoe crabs writhing on the beach at low tide. In fourth grade she was pelted with Sloppy Joes while reading The Iliad on the school lunch line.

No Depression co-editors Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden named The Handsome Family's last CD, “Milk and Scissors”, one of the top ten records of 1996. After its release, The Handsome Family played eleven U.S. shows with Wilco at Jeff Tweedy's request. They also toured Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. John Peel featured The Handsome Family on BBC radio and Esquire named the song, "Drunk by Noon" (on “Milk and Scissors”) "Dissipation Song of 1996." Although Matthew McConaughey chose to sing the Handsome's song, "Arlene" (off the first Handsome Family CD, “Odessa”) during his Rolling Stone interview, the same song was banned from several radio stations. Some people just don't get the allegorical weight of a red-haired woman bludgeoned to death in a long, dark cave.

The Handsome Family's live show combines guitar and bass with banjo and autoharp as well as drum machine and DAT player, creating a unique sound dubbed by Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers) as "Countronica". They also like to drag a life-size plastic deer on stage with them. It makes them feel like they're camping.
Read a review at Salon.

saki016 The Handsome Family-Invisible Hands MLP
OUT OF PRINT
Invisible Hands” is the Handsome Family’s first release since 1996’s “Milk and Scissors” studio album (SAKI011) and is limited to 1000 copies worldwide. A 6 song, vinyl only mini-album that comes in a full color LP jacket, It is comprised of 5 new, exclusive songs, as well as “Tin Foil” from their last record. Once again we’re treated to a view of the world colored by gray skies, rain on the windowpanes, and a strange, heart-tugging longing for better times far past that probably never existed. “Tin Foil” is a loping country waltz with reflections on physics, physical decrepitude, and relationships gone by. It is also the subject of a short musical film shot and written by Chicago director Bill Ward, featuring The Handsomes as actors and with “Tin Foil” as it’s premise. It will be submitted to independent film festivals shortly.

The five exclusive songs sweep through the Handsome Family repertoire, with an emphasis on traditional country and Appalachian folk music. “Cathedrals” is a Hank Williams’ style peon to the gothic cathedrals in Cologne, Germany and the summer playland of the Wisconsin Dells highlighted by Brett’s West Texas drawl and some tasty, if loose, slide guitar. “Grandmother Waits for You” is a mournful, beautiful, tear jerking ballad of what awaits all of us after we kick the bucket accentuated by Rennie’s vocal harmonies and vivid lyrical portraits. “Bury Me Here” brings the autoharp and lap steel out of the closet and winds it’s way past the graveyard like a lazy river on a hot summer day. “Barbara Allen” is a Merle Travis song from 1947 that appeared on the Bloodshot “Straight Outta Boone County” compilation. And bringing up the rear is their latest composition, “Birds You Cannot See”, an instrumentally sparse, near church hymn played only on bass and autoharp that combines virtuous aphorisms with lyrical imagery beyond the surreal.

Since you last heard the Handsomes, they’ve become a duo, with former drummer Mike Werner departing the parched Handsome dustbowl for the greener pastures of a full time graphic arts job. Now Brett and Rennie Sparks (husband and wife) work with a drum machine the size of a pocket calculator who always shows up for rehearsal on time and never breaks bass pedals.

 

saki011 The Handsome Milk and Scissors CoverFamily-Milk & Scissors
Fans of The Handsome Family’s debut record, “Odessa” are going to have to take a few deep breaths to drink this one in. A year and a half have passed since their first album presaged the current influx of roots/country-influenced music now causing so much of a stir and while the music on this new album is still influenced and informed by traditional American roots music, there’s much more here than meets the eye.

In some ways, that last year hasn’t been an easy one in The Handsomes’ camp, but fans of their unique, urban twist on stark, avant garde country music (or “Americana”, or “Insurgent Country”, or “Alternative Country” or whatever) are definitely the beneficiaries in this instance. “Milk and Scissors” is definitely two steps beyond where you’d expect them to be at this point. While “Odessa”’s ride was a runaway rollercoaster of near manic-depressive proportions, this album pulls most of those swerving peaks down to comfortable levels, in favor of more fully fleshing out the valleys, and methodically exploring the nooks and crannies of the caves below.

Both song writing and performance are kicked up several notches herein, with a more somber veil laid over the entire package. And while most of the wackiness of “Odessa” has receded into the distance, a darker, blacker, and much drier humor has risen in it’s place. For the Handsome Family, “Milk and Scissors” is informed as much by a good book as it is a good tune. To wit, the following folks were on their minds while writing and recording: The Carter Family, Kafka, Leonard Cohen, Flying Burrito Brothers, Hank Williams, Sr., Louvin Brothers, Guided By Voices, Everly Brothers, Neil Young, and Eddie Arnold. We get to hear the stories of: Amelia Earhart’s last thoughts of the dancing bear from her childhood as her plane spins out of control over the Pacific, the Little Dutch Boy who decided that saving the inhabitants of Holland wasn’t such a good idea after all, an American frontier girl’s diary entries as she wastes away from TB, Winnebago skeletons, the king who wouldn’t smile, the traditional tune of the house carpenter and his old true love, a 3-legged dog, and raccoons runnin’ off with your hot dog buns in the middle of the night.

saki005 The Handsome Family-Odessa CD Odessa Cover art
They combine X-tra chunky guitar and bass lines for a grungy feel on some songs, which nicely contrasts with their quieter countrified moments. The country songs shoot for a twisted but classic C+W feel, highlighted by Brett’s dry, low-key, Johnny Cash-style vocals with snippets of pedal steel. Also bringing joy to my heart are Rennie’s songs about giant ants, the Big Bad Wolf, serial killers, butterflies, ponies, gorillas and that old friend, death. Try to imagine a high IQ Hickoids with a penchant for melody. Influences range from the obvious, Neil Young and Hank Williams, Sr., to the more obscure, which I’ll leave you to sort out while listening. They were last seen on the Bloodshot Records Chicago alternative country compilation “For a Life of Sin,” alongside Freakwater & Jon Langford, doing “Moving Furniture Around” which they have graciously re-recorded for this album. They also recently had a track on a split 7” with Larry Cash, Jr that surfaced on the Snap! Crackle! Punk! label run by our buddies at Speed Kills. Both have earned them great reviews and radio play in these parts and around the country. Damn, I’m excited about this one!!


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L I N K S
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