Brett and Rennie Sparks brought a four-piece Handsome Family to The Union Chapel for one of those rare evenings that truly deserve the accolade “magical”. Demonstrating the ability for even a little television exposure to change the size of an audience The Handsome Family have stepped up to a considerably larger venue than on previous tours, and one that couldn’t be more in keeping with their music – on an early March evening when the shadows draw in quickly there could have been no better frame for their musical paintings of the strange, mystical and plain bizarre in American life.
The combination of Rennie’s lyrics, encompassing a world view that starts from the off-kilter and just keeps stepping out further, and the wide range of Brett’s vocal moving fluidly from a deep bass through a rich baritone and hitting falsetto when needed, is what has made The Handsome Family a band that many have been following for decades. Their new album – Unseen – is as strong as anything that has gone before – and let’s face it what went before was already the real nuggets of gold in a mine full of pyrite. As luck would have it the first song on Unseen, and at this gig, is called Gold. Melodically it’s like an electric folk song but really it’s a bank robbing murder ballad shot through with dark imagery: “Got a tattoo of a snake and a ski-mask on my face / But I woke up in a ditch behind the Stop-and-Go / Lying in the weeds with a bullet in my gut / watching dollar bills fly away in the dust”. It’s a Tarantino movie in three minutes.
Although Rennie seems upset to have missed pancake day – it gets raised a few times during the gig – the holiday that gets an out of season mention is Christmas – So much wine is a dysfunctional relationship perfectly encapsulated, with a crystal clear insight into self destruction through alcoholism “Listen to me butterfly” Brett sings sadly “There’s only so much wine you can drink in one life / But it will never be enough to save you from the bottom of your glass”. Some of the inspiration for songs is revealed by Rennie as not coming too far from home. Brett, it is revealed, doesn’t own a cell phone and likes to wear a wrist watch – not so dissimilar then from the protagonist of Back in my day who remembers a time when “We had maps that unfolded back in my day / You could drink from the river / We had gods made of clay”. It’s more than just a nostalgic look back, though, as it captures something true about the elastic nature of childhood recollections “There was no time or space when I was growing up / We had summer all winter The moon rose with the sun” as well as a deeply moving note on the vividness of childhood experiences “music sounded better, we recorded on rings of ice / And as the songs turned to water we couldn’t help but cry”.
There are tempo changes aplenty – the Cephalopod fearing Octopus rocks irresistibly, an invitation to involuntary hand waving in echo of the gentle motions of those hypnotic tentacles. Giant of Illinois creeps along at a mortuary pace, fitting the slow unnoticed agonies that lead inexorably to an unpoetic demise. And Tiny Tina is a stroll through the freaky sideshow at a State Fair – tinged with the regret at all the missed opportunities of life. All it would have taken was “just a dollar to see that little horse”, but despite the enticements there’s just a remorseful sigh “why didn’t I go see her ?”. Why indeed. These are songs that carry much more than might seem to be there at first. There are few gigs when one can walk away saying “well, we might have had different great songs, but we wouldn’t have had better songs” – this was one such gig.