The Handsome Family


The whole alt-country/No Depression movement is a bit crowded these days, but if you check out only one 2001 record from young, post-modern hipsters playing elegiac country ballads, make it the Handsome Family’s Twilight.

Hailing from Chicago, Brett and Rennie Sparks are a tight duo that makes uncommonly beautiful country music of the old-school variety, albeit with modern lyrics, truly unusual lyrics full of dreamlike images, odes to nature and a poetic grasp of metaphor. Brett Sparks sings most of the songs (usually joined by his wife on chorus), and his deep, blue baritone vocals are riveting—like a gothic mix of Johnny Cash and Lee Hazlewood.

Recorded at home using Macintosh G3 and ProTools, the album is full of moody acoustic songs that paint surreal visions of American heartland as wasteland, with nature always poking through like a gopher waiting out some nuclear holocaust.

For instance, the darkly romantic song “I Know You Are There” describes faith with a slow shuffle beat ("when black fish glide ponds of silver and jade water lilies grow/ when devils dance around me and the flames of madness grow … when white owls circle screaming and gravel fills my mouth/ I know you are there"). The album closer, “Peace in the Valley Again,” imagines a future calm created by the closing of the last shopping mall with “cash machines sprouting weeds” and “swallows flying empty shops.” In “Birds You Cannot See,” Sparks sings, “There are birds in the darkness who lead lost dogs off highways … birds who douse electrical fires in nursing homes … birds seen by those with tumors … birds falling out of closets and perched on the hands of dying men.”

The duo’s lyrics often hint at nature and its comforting ability to outlast the destructive influence of humankind; simplistic country odes about "feeding birds potato chips in the snow" somehow paint a lovely peace. Or, as the album title implies, the rich songs conjure the glow of twilight, while offering occasional questions such as, "Maybe the world’s much nicer if you can’t hear the cars."