The Gomez and Morticia of Americana, Brett and Rennie Sparks AKA The Handsome Family have long delighted with their singular vision. Rennie able to spin words from weird dreams, bizarre history and extrapolated incidents, Brett voicing these in his monotone baritone, all wrapped up in a strangely comforting low key country styled exotica with ancient keyboards and autoharp nestling amid the guitar and banjo.
Critically acclaimed and with a devoted following The Handsome Family burst out of the niche world of Americana when their song Far From Any Road (from way back in 2003) was chosen as the theme music for the hit TV series True Detective. Online at least they were stars, downloads and viewings of the song hitting millions, a gratifying tale indeed and hopefully some of the moolah has found its way to them. Certainly when Blabber’n’Smoke last saw them they seemed somewhat gratified by the episode but, comfortable within their unique universe, their first album release since the brouhaha, Unseen, carries on as usual with no hint of cashing in with only one song approaching the lush desert storm of Far From Any Road. A case of Stay Calm and Stay Weird.
They open with that trademark sound on the glorious Gold, a border tale suffused with imagery, “Got a tattoo of a snake/And a ski mask on my face/But I woke up in a ditch/Behind the Stop-N-Go/Lying in the weeds with a bullet in my gut/Watching dollar bills go fly away in the dust.” An image sparked when a dollar bill blowin’ in the wind smacked Brett in the face in a car park, fine fodder for Rennie’s imagination. Indeed the album title came from another episode when Rennie, sitting in an airport seat was then sat upon by a businessman who failed to see her. Contemplating her invisibility, she writes as a detached, unseen observer, dreams, occurrences and false memories feeding her fantasies.
The Silver Light is a woozy neon lit country waltz which describes fly blown bar flies addicted to slot machines seeking nirvana in the reflected glow of the tumbling wheels hoping that their angels will line up. This netherworld, a reflection of hopes dashed appears again in The Red Door, a Hitchcock like admonition not to open the door under the stairs and on King Of Dust where the protagonist, hung upside down in his truck after a collision sees himself flying over the desert. Rather than going to a heaven all he sees is barren parched lands, bones bleached in the sand, an Icarus of despair.
Elsewhere they bemoan a lost innocence on Back In My Day and visit a funway in dashed expectations of seeing the world’s tiniest horse, the mournful fairground gaiety of Tiny Tina recalling a baleful clown’s sadness, a painted face hiding his pain. Gentlemen is true gothic, a song swaddled in the bizarre psychedelia of Farewell Aldebaran as Brett sings of a 19th century medium who hoped to vacuum up spirits like so much dust, inventing a machine to do just that. They close with the yearning romanticism of Green Willow Valley which comes across like a wraith tempting his love to cross over into his world, a mirror version of The Green Leaves Of Summer, a love song that graced the John Wayne movie The Alamo. Here it’s a skeletal Wayne beckoning from beyond the grave.
An album begging for epithets such as crepuscular and spooky it transcends these. In short it’s another trip into the odd and extremely attractive world of Brett and Rennie Sparks. The duo are lining up UK dates for early 2017 and in the meantime you can get Unseen on a limited edition transparent green vinyl LP here.