The Handsome Family

Twilight (Carrot Top)

Since 1994, the husband-and-wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks has been performing as the Handsome Family, recording Rennie's fractured suburban fairy tales in Brett's soothing Texas baritone. While great music has come out of numerous tumultuous couplings -- see Richard and Linda Thompson, Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox, and Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss -- the Sparks create art from a more fantastic locale where psychology overrides personality, creepy animal imagery flourishes, and blood and gore replace champagne and roses. On their fifth album, Twilight, the duo find a vaguely happy medium between the emotional breakdowns of 1998's Through the Trees and the lighter offerings of 2000's Into the Air.

The egalitarian relationship shared by Brett and Rennie is perfectly apparent from Twilight's opener, "The Snow White Diner." Brett delivers Rennie's stream-of-consciousness lyrics in a quiet whisper, combining simple details with a deadpan recitation of tragedy -- a man eats hash browns in a diner while a car holding two children and their mother is pulled from a frozen lake -- to make something unnervingly affecting.

Other tunes hint at the domestic disturbances buried in the recesses of the morning paper. In "Passenger Pigeons," Brett offers a touch of hopefulness as his protagonist pines after a departed lover -- until the end of the song, when you find him stuck "drinking a frozen beer and throwing potato chips into the white snowdrifts/ Just in case a bird decides to fly through."

Details

With the Willard Grant Conspiracy on Saturday, Jan. 12, at 10 p.m.

The Court & Spark opens

Tickets are $8

Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St. (at Missouri), S.F., 621-4455

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Musically, Twilight's songs have a lilting Southern simplicity, with gentle guitar, banjo, piano, and autoharp. But the minute you hear what the Sparks have to say -- "When the rope of death strangles and dark waters roar and foam," for instance -- the Handsome Family becomes more like a shock rock act than a delicate country group. The difference is that this band isn't emitting generic nightmares; instead, it's scaring you silly with far more realistic tales. (By the way, the aforequoted "I Know You Are There" is a love song.)

Understanding that good art is seldom agreeable, the Handsome Family makes it impossible to smile at its eerie songs. But if you're prone to drinking cheap beer alone or slowing down to gape at a horrible accident, the Sparks' battered view of the world should be a perfect companion.

 
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