Handsome Devils

Brett and Rennie Sparks are the squabbling Sonny and Cher of gothic, underground country

In the grand tradition of the wisecracking duo, Brett and Rennie Sparks guide the Handsome Family over cold, windswept snowscapes, replete with dogs, birds and the rest of God's creatures. They mirror the stark, haunted visages of patrons at Snow White diners, the minds of tormented blind men, and universal dreams of happiness left unanswered by Wal-Mart or television's unearthly glow.

Like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Fred and Barney, or Sonny and Cher, the married pair -- who tore it up last week at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, along with Calexico, and Sweet Bleeders -- exhibit an onstage chemistry that is as endearing as it is amusing, while their songs' bleak environs drive heartward our tenuous stake in this world with a dry wit fascinated by the moribund. The spirit of the old murder ballad lives in the music, whose slow, spare country lope limps under the weight of the dissolution that surrounds it.

"Songs about life should include death as well," says Rennie Sparks, the band's lyricist. "A happy song that is missing that part of life seems kind of empty to me and false. I try to make songs feel like I feel, the way it feels to be alive. It's really funny to be alive and it's really sad and it's really beautiful and it's really ugly. It's a lot of opposites at every moment of existence."

Handsome Family: Darkly humorous chroniclers of the underbelly of American life.
Mark Owen
Handsome Family: Darkly humorous chroniclers of the underbelly of American life.

The band's latest album, Twilight (Carrot Top Records), has been critically lauded, and, like 2000's In the Air, is sure to roost near the top of many critics' year-end lists. It features the mournful "So Long," an ode to lost pets, "the squirrel I accidentally shot and to everything I burned with a magnifying glass that long lonely summer when I was 10"; the stirring, allegorical "Passenger Pigeons," which laments a lost love and the wanton destruction of a billion birds; and the beer-soaked country of "Peace in the Valley Again," which imagines an abandoned shopping mall reclaimed by nature's own.

Indeed, throughout the band's five albums, animals make many appearances, from three-legged dogs to two-headed calves, expressing in their surrender to our urban advance the same alienation and isolation modern society engenders in many of us.

"My theory is when I was little, we lived in the woods and my only friend was a dog, so I think that I imprinted on a dog at a very early age," says Rennie, explaining her predilection for animals over humans. "I just find that the relationship you can have with animals is much purer because it doesn't involve sentences. Words get us into a lot of trouble. Plus I like the fact that animals leave such little behind when they go. I think about the pile of shit I've created in my life and it's just horrifying."

A short-story writer (she sells a book of her stories at the gigs), Rennie's gothic songs have been compared to the work of Flannery O'Connor, though she thinks there is more humor in her songs than the tragic that seems to attract most of the attention.

"I think there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy. I do think that Flannery O'Connor is pretty funny, but I think she's kind of mean to her characters, that she has no compassion for them and kind of hopes something bad happens to all of them," she says. "I really love all these people in my songs in a way. I want good things for them, it just doesn't work out that way. It's not my fault."

Rennie's a writer from Long Island, Brett's a classically trained musician from Texas. Onstage their banter is the patter of an old married couple, like Bogie and Bacall in The Big Sleep. Between songs at a recent show, she cracked, "Seven years of medieval composition for this."

"Shut up and pay attention to what you're doing," drawled the big Texan as he launched into the next song. It's like this with them.

"We tend to argue a lot," says Rennie. "Because he won't admit that I'm right."

"It's scripted. It's the same every night," he retorts.

"He's not even a real person, he's a composite."

"Some people believe that," says Brett. "People are in the audience going, 'Wait until she yells at him about blah-blah-blah.'"

"I like people to feel like they get to know us," Rennie adds. "I don't want people to feel like they came to a show and they still don't know anything more about us. I want it to feel like you kind of hung out with us or something."

While Brett grew up listening to classical music or his dad's country music, his palette quickly grew to include a wide range of styles.

"I've always had pretty broad tastes. There's not a lot of difference to me between Beethoven and the Clash in just sheer musical intensity. I don't draw those kinds of distinctions between music," Brett says. "I still sit down and play Bach at the piano and I love it. It relaxes me. It's the greatest music to me that has ever been written."

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