The Handsome Family embraces the dark side

There's a deliciously dark side to the Handsome Family, and that's been known to get the New Mexico--based duo in trouble.

"People sometimes have a problem listening to things in more than one way," lyricist and multi-instrumentalist Rennie Sparks says on the phone from her Albuquerque home. On the extension is her husband and bandmate, Brett, who sings and plays guitar. "Our first record [1994's Odessa] had this song on it called 'Arlene'. It was a standard murder ballad which followed all the rules from beginning to end. Even though there's no actual violence--it's more assumed there's going to be some--there was this big outcry that it was misogynist when National Public Radio played it in America."

Rennie eventually ended up going on air to defend the song.

"I had to explain what a murder ballad is, and why in them a young beautiful girl is often killed. It's all about beauty. It's through beauty that we understand mortality, because beauty doesn't last."

Chemistry does, though, at least where the Handsome Family is concerned. Six albums into its career, the two-piece continues to come up with some of the most gorgeous--if poetically black--songs found in American roots music today. The group's latest, Singing Bones, is, again, gothic country at its most sublime, with campfire-cozy ballads spiked with Theremin-like keyboards and coal-dusted guitar. Just as important as the music are the lyrics, which conjure images of haunted convenience stores, forgotten lakes, towering black mountains, and rattlesnake deserts. It's evocative, potent stuff, to the point where, somewhere in a saloon in heaven, Marty Robbins and Tennessee Ernie Ford are knocking back bourbons and singing along to "Gail With the Golden Hair" and "The Bottomless Hole". And if the clickety-clack country of "The Song of a Hundred Toads" hasn't brought a smile to the ghost of Johnny Cash, then there truly is no afterlife.

Like past records, Singing Bones finds Rennie dreaming up lyrics then handing them over to Brett, who sets them to music.

"We've got a home studio, so I'll take them, bring her back a demo, and then we'll talk about the song. Or scream at each other. Then she'll listen to the song again, go back and change half the fucking lyrics, and I'll get totally pissed off. But at least that only happens about 10 percent of the time."

Laughing, Rennie pretends to start crying and adds: "That's right--you only remember the bad times."

Both musicians acknowledge the Handsome Family--at Richard's on Richards on Saturday (January 31)--is usually slotted into the alt-country section of record stores. That's probably because the band's songs tend to sound like they were written for the same mixed tape as Ralph Stanley's version of "Henry Lee" and Johnny Cash's take on "The Long Black Veil". Brett argues that the group is closer to a folk unit, though, and thanks to its predisposition toward acoustic guitars and multitracked harmonies, it's difficult to disagree with that. Canadian folkies have had no problem embracing the Handsome Family: mere minutes before this interview, the band was invited to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

Things are, however, different down in the States. The Sparks have done their best to crack the A Mighty Wind market, only to discover that that sometimes gets them in trouble.

"People down here think we're weird--weird, weird, weird," Rennie says.

Brett then jumps in with: "American folk festivals, and their fans, are very purist. If somebody walks on-stage with a harmonica, everybody immediately shits. Show up with a banjo, and you might as well be pulling a Jimi Hendrix. You get the same reaction as Dylan at Newport. And don't even think about bringing an accordion."