Rhythm & Views

The Handsome Family

Mistree of the dark Rennie Sparks has found light in the desert, and whole new categories of flora and fauna to populate her haunting imagery since she and husband, Brett, made their move from Chicago to Albuquerque two years ago. But the inclusion of creosote and coyotes in her lyrics is far less significant a development in Handsome Family life than the discovery that she can sing.

Who knew? Her vocal contributions heretofore have been limited to mimcry of Appalachian crones--character bits accenting sets dominated by husband Brett's deep, unforgettable baritone drawl. It turns out that Rennie sings like velvet, a soft and ghostly counterpoint to Brett's almost impossibly fluid and expressive phrasing.

Brett, too, explores new talents on Singing Bones, the sixth full-length release in the Handsome Family oeuvre. He's taught himself to play pedal steel and singing saw, and he's taught Rennie to play banjo. Since the couple comprises the entirety of The Handsome Family, if you don't count their iBook as offspring, such versatility is useful on the road. But in their home recording studio, Brett's brother Darrell joined in on drums, banjo and violin, and other Albuquerque musicians contributed trumpet, mandolin, dobro and upright bass parts.

The Southwestern influence is inescapable. There's a first-person folktale about a gold miner whose end lies in the sun he likens to a golden coin. The character of the song has dozens of antecedents in tales like that of the Lost Dutchman. The oft-told tale of a man losing his love to the bright lights of the city is given a new twist in "Gail With The Golden Hair," in which a couple passes an idyll drinking warm beers and shooting their empties with a rusty rifle before Gail succumbs to the allure of street lights. "Far From Any Road" features a ghostly lover's invitation: "When the last light warms the rocks/and the rattlesnakes unfold/mountain cats will come to drag away your bones/then rise with me forever/across the silent sand. É "

A highlight of the set is "Bottomless Hole," which borrows from the moralism of many American traditional songs. The moral, though, is ambiguous: Is it an environmentalist cautionary tale? A hint of Phaethon's folly? (When the protagonist rides a bathtub down into the hole, he refers to it as a "chariot.") Curiosity kills the cat? Or merely the blindness of self destruction?

It its mood and arrangements, Singing Bones is of a piece with the Handsome's In the Air, which international leviathan MOJO magazine dubbed the No. 1 Americana CD of 2000 and Spin pegged as one of the 10 best records hardly anyone heard. It's also consistent with the couple's 2001 release, Twilight, a featured album of the month in Uncut, which had named the Handsome's third release, Through the Trees, the best New Country Album of the Year. It's as beautiful as silvery waves under an enchanted moon, rustic as the tale of comrades in the Civil War, spooky as a haunted Wal-Mart or a late night alone in your office cubicle, and ethereal as white-nightgowned sleepwalkers on the beach.

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