The Handsome Family “Unseen” (Loose Records, 2016)

handsome-familyUnseen is a good word to describe the Handsome Family – they are ludicrously underappreciated and often their songs deal with the internal world or take place in the darkness that from time to time envelopes us all, there or in the natural world, away from our eyes. We’re lucky that they continue to pursue their idiosyncratic vision and serve up their worldview for us to share. Perhaps typical of them is ‘Tiny Tina,’ a song about ultimately regretting going to see the world’s smallest horse at the State Fair.

Their version of Americana is consistent: there are no departures from their mix of Country and Folk idioms, and the instrumentation is stable too, the songs, the texts, the stories, the imagery are what mark them out. The songs are like a series of detailed paintings in a gallery. ‘Gentleman’ conjures up an image of a Victorian scientist, gas lamps flickering off the polished brass instruments. They create their own worlds that often seem removed from the everyday, so when they tackle contemporary issues with more contemporary images, it almost jolts. ‘The Silver Light’ with its opening sound of slot machines in a casino seems outside their terms of reference but they see the casino as they see the natural world, with a sense of wonder.

‘Back in My Day’ has fun with nostalgia – ‘we had summer all winter’ – ‘Gold’ gets inside the mind of a criminal bleeding to death in a ditch – the songs, as usual, are full of rich imagery and phrases that open up new vistas in the mind. That’s the subtle power of the Handsome Family: they offer a different view of the world, one that is immersive. I enjoyed this record more than their last couple of efforts. Perhaps I’m realising that we need them more than ever.

Author: David Cowling

Punk rock, Go-Betweens, REM, Replacments, Husker Du, Minutemen, Will Oldham, Smog, Whiskeytown, Ass Ponys but probably most of all Howe Gelb, led me on this journey.

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