Europeans, by contrast, seem to understand the dark muse of this Chicago husband-and-wife goth-country duo a little better. "After all them plagues and wars and such," explains Brett Sparks with a laugh, "them Euros think we're a lighthearted romp."
Valley music fans will have a chance to decide for themselves as the Handsome Family makes its first Arizona appearance in more than four years this week at Modified. The last time they passed through was as an opener for alt-country-turned-pop darlings Wilco. In the interim, they've made their two finest records (1998's Through the Trees and this year's In the Air), conquered Europe more effectively than the Turks, and been redeemed by the Smithsonian's reissue of the seminal Harry Smith's Anthology of Folk Music.
"We had a hard tour with Wilco," recalls Rennie of the 1996 jaunt. "People simply had no clue what we were doing. I credit the rerelease of the Harry Smith anthology with saving our asses and careers. Suddenly people understood. "Hey, this is just folk music!'"
Well, yes and no.
Recently, the band has been touring in support of a new collection of songs that Brett deems "a bit more user-friendly." "Things seem to be better this time around," adds Rennie. "I think the music is a little sweeter, the words a little more compassionate and less nihilistic. Easier for people to fall into without having to have their hearts ripped out and trampled. Plus, there's more songs about drinking, which everyone can relate to."
Still, the beauty of In the Air lies in the fact that it's very much a folk rendering, if a thoroughly skewed one. The disc explores gothic tales of morbidity and psychological insight using an amazing tableau of cubist pastoral imagery. All this backed by music so traditional, so timeless, your great-grandmother might have hummed her babies to sleep with it.
It wasn't always so easy. In 1995, when the Handsome Family debuted with Odessa (recorded as a three-piece with drummer Mike Werner), the album was conceived as something of a perverse joke. Filled with noisy, corrosive character studies, Brett says the record embarrasses him now; he hasn't been able to listen to it in years. "In a way, I felt like the first record was a thing to hurt people," says Rennie. "'Here, listen to this crap.' We really felt antisocial. All I knew was what I hated; I didn't have anything I liked. I just basically wanted everybody to hate me and then I'd have an excuse to, like, leave this fucking place."
Despite Rennie's air of almost suicidal despair, critics raved over the album. Yet it's only in retrospect that Odessa's fusion of punk rage, retro folk-twang, pitch-black storytelling and Dadaist imagery seems ragged and uneven. On subsequent efforts, especially In the Air, the quality of the Sparks' ideas, musically and lyrically, and the cohesion of their presentation, have matured to the point that they're able to cut to the essence of humanity like a tempered steel dagger through freshly fallen snow.
The group's artistic turning point may have been its limited-edition, six-song secular Handsome Family hymnal, the vinyl LP Invisible Hands, released in 1997 (two of the songs from Invisible Hands reappeared on Through the Trees, "Bury Me Here" and "Cathedrals." Another, "Grandmother Waits for You," surfaces on In the Air). The product of an especially dark time in Rennie's life, the record's lyrics represent her first steps in a new direction, using music not to reinforce her sense of alienation, but to try to assuage it.
"Depression really sucks," says Rennie. "It's so boring. I mean, everybody's depressed. I think it's the human condition. But I think there are things you can do to make yourself . . . feel better. I've been trying really hard to write some happy songs. Not like, "Yea! Life!' but maybe just some kind of acceptance and serenity in defining a place where you can be at peace. To a certain extent, your life is what you believe it is. You can make it a little more tolerable if you can imagine that it could be more tolerable."
For example, on the new album's soothing opening ballad, "Don't Be Scared," the narrative surrounds a mysterious late-night phone call. Is it a stalker? A wrong number? Or a gentle reminder that you're not all alone in the world? In the song, Rennie's lyrics settle upon the latter. More eerily, in "Lie Down" she makes even the prospect of drowning seem like an invitation back to the comforts of the womb. "That's the way your life is," she says. "You go outside and you see something happen and you, in your head, decide, "Is that a happy thing?'"
The Handsome Family sings a lot about death, and without apology. Besides "Lie Down," In the Air includes the ambiguous "Poor, Poor Lenore," in which a heart-stricken, rejected lover is carried off by sympathetic crows, and "The Sad Milkman," which may or may not suggest suicide (Rennie notes that either reading is acceptable). In addition, there are two outright murder ballads, the old-timey "My Beautiful Bride," and the utterly remorseless, fratricidal "Up Falling Rock Hill."
"It doesn't purely come from our own morbidity, but it does have a tradition in American folk music," Brett explains. "Our favorite music is like that, too. It tells these little didactic morality tales. Stuff by the Blue Sky Boys, the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family, and you can go on and on. There are lots of mother songs, lots of songs about heaven, and there's the murder thing.
"There are a lot of songs about murder that are written with that kind of bone-chilling lack of emotion," he continues, "with an almost newspaperlike presentation. That's kind of what those songs originally were, oral histories about people who got killed."
That tradition of American/Appalachian folk music has both parallels and roots in England and Ireland, so it's not surprising that the Handsome Family's music has quickly found a home there. The culture across the Atlantic also prizes the dark, quirky wit that characterizes not only Rennie's lyrics, but also the pair's onstage banter. The duo's popularity has grown in such rapid ascension (including glowing coverage in the Brit-music glossies) that it required the couple to make six trips to Europe last year alone, where, they say, they were treated like rock stars.
"It is tougher touring in the U.S.," says Rennie. "Here, you drive for 10 or 12 hours, eat a sandwich from a gas station, play in a shitty bar with no sound system, no flushing toilets, Cokes that taste like fish, then drive aimlessly down the highway looking for a hotel with bloodstains in the parking lot in the hopes that it will be in your price range. In Europe it's all fine wines, rounds of Brie, hotels with bidets in the bathroom, etc. They're just way behind us over there in sleaze and distrust of strangers."
Touring the music of In the Air poses challenges beyond mere logistics and accommodations, though. On the record, Brett overdubbed a dozen instruments and layers upon layers of effects, acting as producer and engineer as well as one-man band in a perfect expression of a sound the duo has long sought. But translating the scope of the record into the live setting was less of an undertaking than it might seem. "Fortunately, I recorded In the Air at home on the computer," Brett says. "All I have to do is decide on a live arrangement that will work, then I go to the computer recording of the songs themselves. [I take] out the tracks I don't feel are essential and the parts we'll be playing live, then I mix what's left down to mini-disc, for live use." It's a live/electronic combination that the Sparks' friend Jon Langford (of Mekons and Waco Brothers fame) has dubbed "countronica."
With or without the production effects, the songs on In the Air are a singular bit of songcraft, tapping relentlessly into a millennial malaise and a widespread feeling of simmering alienation. "Everything in America is happy and great and inside everybody's thinking, "I'm gonna kill everyone on my block and then I'm gonna shoot myself in the head,'" says Rennie, laughing. "It's because they just feel so distanced from what they think they should be getting from their life."
From writing songs born of their own alienation, the Handsome Family has evolved, gradually finding value in letting their work tap into more universal sentiments. Recounting the experience of the Wilco tour, Rennie says, "You know, every once in a while someone would say, "Oh, I really like this song,' and the more they said they liked the "real' songs and not the stupid songs, I realized that we actually could write real songs.
"I just like that idea, to be able to write a song that somebody else could enjoy, have some kind of emotional response and remember or want to sing. Now I'm focused more on not just me at all, but maybe something we could all agree on. "Look, I feel exactly the way you feel. We're all the same.'"
The Handsome Family is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, June 28, at Modified, with Juarez, and Medium. Showtime is 9 p.m.