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."
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."
He and Rennie recently moved to Albuquerque from Chicago, where they'd lived for the last 10 years, citing the expense of renting in a big city when you're on the road seven months of the year. New Mexico is where Brett went to college, graduating with a degree in music, the source of some amusement to Rennie.
"I had a class where we basically studied one song for most of the semester," Brett recalls.
"You paid for that?" Rennie inquires.
"Looking that carefully into any composition, no matter what it is, requires a certain kind of, well, fucked-up mentality for one thing," says Brett. "It also requires dedication and sincere interest in the nature of music itself. Music history is a really strange discipline. It's basically listening to records."
"Hey, Mom and Dad, I got a degree in record-listening," says Rennie.
"It's a degree in thinking about music," says Brett. "Studying music formally made me a more well-rounded musician and taught me what I wanted to do and what I don't want to do. Informed musical decisions."
Handsome Family followers are realistic enough not to expect any hits from Rennie and Brett's pens, but as Brett wryly puts it, "Some people are still hoping for maybe an up-tempo song."
But while he jokes, and we discuss a show in Minneapolis with Wilco where someone in the back repeatedly called for them to "pick it up," Brett does admit to being conscious of expectations as the alt-country scene takes off, particularly overseas. Yet on Twilight he includes several tracks that broaden the band's sound, including "Snow White Diner," with its Euro-Goth piano undercurrent, and, as Brett describes it, "a Middle Eastern melody and descending kind of Hotel California chord progression."
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"I was kind of self-censoring . . . , especially on In the Air. Making records that are kind of more (Sideshow Bob-style shudder), dare I say it, alt-country-ish. At least for my, like, English fan base, because it's really taking off over there in a big way," says Brett. "It freaked me out, and I was starting to write records like, oh-I'm-gonna-be-a-country-artist or something. Then this record I had all these other songs, and I was just, 'This is a good song, and if I want to put this song out, I should put it on the record.' So that song, and 'There Is a Sound,' which is a totally different aspect of myself, and 'I Know You're There.' I just said screw it, these are good songs and that's the only criteria."
Meanwhile, Brett continues to move forward. He's putting together an album of compilation tracks, B-sides, live performances and covers which he plans to sell at gigs and on the Internet. Howe Gelb of Giant Sand will be stopping by the Sparkses' basement studio next month to hang out and maybe do some recording. There's also a chance the band, which has been accompanied almost exclusively by mini-disc arrangements for the past three years, will be accompanied by a live drummer -- Brett's brother, who recently started playing with them.
"It's very difficult to adjust to having a real drummer. It's a lot easier for me to play with a machine because I grew up playing piano along with metronomes and stuff," says Brett. "I don't have any really inherent aesthetic problem about playing with a machine or a mini-disc. As a matter of fact, I'd rather play with machines than with most human beings. Honestly."
Contemplating their place in the boy band and metal radio world of today, Rennie notes, "One of the reasons a lot of older people, when they grow up in the U.S., stop buying records and being interested in music, [is] because they don't know where to find music that speaks to them after they're 16."