Sad and beautiful, the Handsome Family sounds like an eerie prairie wind knocking over a freaky-looking scarecrow. Singing about strangled women, insane farmers and blind men who hear angels whispering inside potatoes, this married couple of 15 years, Rennie and Brett Sparks, write lovely but gloomy songs that take place on the outskirts of godforsaken towns or in the wilderness beyond. Rennie is the author of the Edgar Allan Poe-like lyrics. She also plucks delicate notes on her Autoharp and in concert drops clever between-song jokes, mostly about death. Her husband Brett sings in a somber, moderately tempered baritone, while writing the music and playing simple, subtle melodies on guitar, bass, saw and pedal steel. Creeping along at a ghost-town-like pace, the Handsome Family's songs are low-key, a little bit of country interbreeding with a little bit of death metal.
Since 2001's brilliant Twilight, the Handsome Family has moved from Chicago to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the new desert locale is reflected on several Southwestern-flavored tunes on their fine new record, Singing Bones. Of course, for them, the desert is merely a place to get lost with screaming buzzards circling overhead and then die slowly and painfully, mountain cats eventually dragging away the bones. Such is the fate of the protagonist of "Far From Any Road," one of Singing Bones' more upbeat tunes.
In "The Song of a Hundred Toads," a man heads to the gold mines with his dog and horse. But his horse soon falls off a cliff along with everything he owns. At night, his dog is spooked by howling coyotes, snaps at his owner and then leaves him. On the fifth day, the man is eating handfuls of dirt. Other songs are set in a haunted office, a 24-hour store filled with lonely souls, a hideous forest and a bottomless hole.
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Morose and poetic, the Handsome Family on Singing Bones brings to the desert what they've brought to the prairie on past albums -- rotting corpses and uncommonly exquisite music.