Handsome Family

Tuesday, Oct. 16; Sally T's

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Inevitably, critiques of the Handsome Family's music contain a few specific words: macabre, grotesque, dark. Songs about death and darkness, blah-blah-blah. But what about death's mystique? Its confusing allure? The vicarious thrill? Must darkness be total, impenetrable -- and therefore excruciatingly dull? Must we resist the urge to glamorize it, poke at it, caress it? Or, God forbid, laugh with it?The Handsome Family knows that despite the power death has over us, it's a cop-out to simply ignore it the way we ignore the roadkill bunny on the highway as we race to a Glitter matinee. On their fifth full-length, the recently released Twilight, a ray of light shines through pain, as though lyricist/wife Rennie Sparks maybe carried the dead bunny into the Glitter matinee. "Peace in the Valley Once Again" imagines a futureworld in which the malls have been reclaimed by nature: "Termites ate through the doors/Rabbits hopped along the floors/The empty shelves swarmed with bees/Cash machines sprouted weeds ... and there was peace in the valley once again." Elsewhere, she imagines a world where "no one fell asleep alone." Her words and tone resemble the work of the late Edward Gorey, the illustrator/humorist whose dark drawings found humor in death. ("So Long," in fact, seems to draw inspiration from Gorey's "The Gashleycrumb Tinies.")

These songs are contained in the sturdy fort vocalist/guitarist/husband Brett Sparks has constructed with music and voice. It's a sound that exists in a weird space-time continuum; drawing inspiration from old-style Anthology of American Music country blues and raw-dirt Dorthea Lange tones, songs are filled with piano, autoharp, guitar and banjo. But this age-old American aesthetic is augmented with echoes and gauze, strange feedback and itsy, unassuming electronic beats.

In one of the best songs they've ever written, "There Is a Sound," a piano draws out a steady melody as Brett sings Rennie's otherworldly, borderline-psychotic observations: "There is a sound like breaking glass when water falls on dying grass." The song proceeds in a strangely prophetic direction -- it was recorded before Sept. 11: "There is a sound old buildings cry right before the morning light/The quiet sound that's left behind when airplanes fall from the sky." The result, on Twilight, is a uniformly gentle, but scary, beauty, the kind that never gets in-yer-face or clobbers you over the head but sneaks up on you from behind, wraps its hands around your eyes and whispers into your ear.

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