The Handsome Family– Last Days of Wonder

The Mindful Bard:Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World

Wanda Waterman
The Voice Magazine, Volume 15 Issue 29 2007-08-10

The Handsome Family – Last Days of Wonder

Release date: May 29, 2006

Label: Carrot Top Records, Chicago, IL
(Recorded in the Sparks’s home studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico)

The first time I saw Brett and Rennie Sparks was in Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Rennie is strumming an autoharp and Brett is skritching a washboard. They are standing on the front porch of a weathered shack and the shack is floating in a lake whose waters appear to be level with the porch. Two monitors face them and electrical cords snake around their feet. If the water were to lap a little too hard it would finish them both off in an apt burst of white light.

The first time I saw Brett and Rennie Sparks was in Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Rennie is strumming an autoharp and Brett is skritching a washboard. They are standing on the front porch of a weathered shack and the shack is floating in a lake whose waters appear to be level with the porch. Two monitors face them and electrical cords snake around their feet. If the water were to lap a little too hard it would finish them both off in an apt burst of white light.

By the time this movie was released, The Handsome Family had already put out several recordings that won ecstatic reviews and cultivated a small following. In the same year they sang “Famous Blue Raincoat” in I’m Your Man, the film tribute to Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s influence shines from Rennie’s lyrics. Nothing is stolen from Cohen (well, the line “my lady of the golf course” in “Flapping Your Broken Wings” may be a nod to “Suzanne”), but I’m guessing Cohen songs are among the influences which gave them that creative go-ahead which truly original artists pass on like a fertile seed in the depths of their own creations; seed that, if we’re good, we too can pass on; seed that says, Do what’s in your head right now you fool and stop trying to be like your idols.

I’ve heard couples like this in Appalachian camp meetings; the woman strumming an autoharp while singing a bold harmony to her husband’s heartfelt nasal hymnifying. These lyrics are not quite what you’d hear in a church in the wildwood, yet they suit the music like butter on grits. It takes genius and imagination to take simple traditional forms and use them as vehicles for this kind of intellectual exploration.

You sense that behind these songs is a trauma so huge that all the little things have ceased to matter and all the great forgotten things are once again peeping at us from behind the mountains. Northrop Frye wrote that when you get deep enough into irony you see glimpses of ancient gods and goddesses and the beginnings of things. The Handsome Family’s world is thick with primitive deity: Nikola Tesla as the embodiment of the marginalized beauty of the solitary mad genius; death as a hovering companion; the mad as prophets and apostles; and the presence of the one you love throbbing in all things, even dirty needles and abandoned cars. The sound is new while being at the same time a gesture back to a time of leafy groves and addled huntsmen, to that American twilight time between the chivalry of medieval England and the primeval terrors of an alien continent.

The creation of new modes of realism often begins with a Faulknerian weirdness that steps outside the expected. For those who wear reality like chains, this weirdness is liberating, and liberation is one condition of the creative act. Those who like their world structured and bland will no doubt feel disturbed by the Sparks’s surreal view of life. As a friend once remarked of Jane Siberry, after you listen to that music it takes a while before you feel normal again. I think that’s the point. The dissonant chord screeches toward resolution, the rain clears, and this too shall pass. Meanwhile, you are in this beautiful space. Revel in it.

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