Suspicious Minds

Emily Shore, a young daughter of the last century, had been "coughing up blood since the dogwoods bloomed." Right before she died, she hacked off her hair with a pocketknife and braided her father a watch chain out of the fallen strands. The Handsome Family's "Emily Shore 1819-1839" isn't an Appalachian ballad, but it inhales some of that morbid mountain air. A lot of Rennie Sparks' lyrics turn out that way, as if she's heard a few too many songs about death-come-too-soon. She puts her lovingly sick words in her husband Brett's lonesome mouth, and he spits them back out with a moaning sweetness that gives their band its countrified heart.

Officiating at the Sparks' aesthetic shotgun wedding (Brett sets Rennie's lyrics to music) is drummer Mike Werner. The Chicago trio's latest album, Milk and Scissors, follows their debut LP, Odessa, down a well-trod highway of plaintive dirge strumming. As someone once said about families, they fuck you up, and the Handsome Family's sound is a case in point -- murky and gray, churning with dark chords and darker humor.

While Odessa kicked out a goofier, sassier spirit, Milk and Scissors is an ultimately more satisfying work of art, largely because of Rennie's greater verbal contribution. Applying nursery-rhyme logic to what comes off as a troubled English-major past, she concocts sad turns of phrase like this one: "There was a king who wouldn't smile/ Sat on the toilet reading The Trial." Other characters zip back and forth between history and myth, real life and flights of fancy. William Howard Taft shares soup with Amelia Earhart, the Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dike gets a well-deserved elegy, and in "Lake Geneva," a breakfast at Waffle House unleashes a flood of dismal memories that even the Dutch boy couldn't clog.

I telephoned Brett and Rennie Sparks recently and we talked about their collaboration. I asked Brett what it's like to sing about himself in the third person. "Lake Geneva," for example, chronicles his nervous breakdown of last year from his wife's point of view. When asked what it's like to sing about "how he cried when they strapped him to the stretcher," Brett simply notes, "It's not an unusual situation -- songwriting teams."

"Gilbert and Sullivan!" chimes Rennie, though she wonders, "Don't they usually end up never speaking to each other again?"

In fact, Brett maintains that his problem with "Lake Geneva" didn't lie in the way that he had to describe his own painful delusions, but rather, "the formal aspect of the lyrics. There's a lot of words." Rennie concurs: "I stay up all night sometimes and hand him a tear-stained paper and I'll say, 'What do you think?' And he'll say, 'I think it'll work in 6/8.' Both points of view are valid. After all, we're talking about rhythmic speech."

This feel for rhythmic speech, coupled with an obvious passion for history, finds a charming expression in their version (of Clarence Ashley's 1930 rendition) of the English ballad "The House Carpenter," in which a woman abandons her husband and child to run off with her first love. "We just listen to a lot of Smithsonian Folkways recordings," says Rennie. "I especially liked 'The House Carpenter' because when it was an English song it was about the demon lover and satanic and sexy. In the American version, all those things had to be removed. They just cut out all the nasty bits and you get this strange surreal trouble that happens for no apparent reason." Brett, the formalist, says that he was drawn to the way Ashley "plays the same broken chord over and over again" as an accompaniment. Rennie jokes that because of that droning openness, "You can hear women cooking biscuits in the background saying, 'Clarence! Put down your banjo, breakfast is ready!"

Because of the Sparks' fondness for the poetry and melodies of the American musical past and the way they work within the electrified indie rock social sphere, the Handsomes get lumped (along with current tourmates Wilco) into the alternacountry movement. This they distance themselves from, particularly the pressure to find a singular stylistic niche. Rennie says, "There is such a thing as American music, and it's very complicated. The more you look, the more complex it is. There's no way to get a grasp on it. It's a continuum, and we just put our bucket in there. When we play for country fans, they're dismayed. If you play one song that has a country train beat, and then a waltz, and then a song with distorted guitars, they yell, 'Make up your mind!' Why should you have to make up your mind? I mean, how many emotions can you have in one hour?"

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

The Handsome Family opens for Wilco Thursday, Nov. 14, at 8:30 p.m. at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell. Call 885-0750.

 
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