Son Of The Velvet Rat. Dorado. Fluff & Gravy Records

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The arrestingly titled Son Of The Velvet Rat are husband and wife duo Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder, both Austrian but now domiciled in Joshua Tree in the Californian desert. Like that other married duo, The Handsome Family, Son Of The Velvet Rat inhabit a somewhat gothic twilight zone, a crepuscular portrait of a sometimes dark and eerie landscape with their muted tones reminiscent of rituals and murky deeds. Producer Joe Henry evokes well the atmosphere in his liner notes which portray a motel, part Bates, part Lynch, all mystery.

The songs slouch forward for the most part with Georg’s voice a haunting half sung threnody (which recalls Chip Taylor’s recent efforts) while the music floats on drifts of organ, accordion and splintered guitar with occasional decoration from pedal steel and violin.  A couple of the songs have a pulse beat beyond moribund with Blood Red Shoes a fine upholstered ride along a dark highway with additional vocals from the much missed Victoria Williams while Surfer Joe is like Springsteen taking time out to hang with some Repo Men with an alien in the trunk of their car. Starlight Motel opens with an evocative Spanish guitar trill and spooky harmonica but gradually picks up speed as the gears shift up with Georg on the run from a mystery crime. Part gangster story, part metaphysics, it glows with an evil neon malice, guitars shimmering in the reflection.

The meat of the album is in the slow procession of darkness exemplified by the opening Carry On, a funereal number with weeping violin. Copper Hill is suffused with mournful horns as the song slowly advances again like a funeral but here with a New Orleans like dignity. Love’s The Devil’s Foe rests upon a plaintive organ note before an impassioned plea from Georg to his succubus has the band evoking the elements with splashes of piano and percussion  and Shadow Song creeps along with a sinister bass line with occasional flurries of violin, spooky indeed. Sweet Angela is a love song with a twist as the singer sits in the glow of a TV, his remote control out of reach but deciding that an anonymous woman on the screen would be the perfect replacement for “that bitch in Berlin”. The album closes with the claustrophobic existentialism of Franklin Avenue with Georg reimagining an encounter as the band achieve a perfect sense of bathos, a dreamlike evocation.

Dorado is a dark trip into the American psyche and should delight those who admire The Handsome Family and The Walkabouts, a band who infused a dark European feel into their lonesome laments.

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The Handsome Family and Courtney Marie Andrews @The Fallen Angels Club. St. Lukes, Glasgow. 23rd February 2017

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It was a welcome return to Glasgow for The Handsome Family and a solo debut performance tonight from fellow Loose Records artist Courtney Marie Andrews, the sold out show proof that even on a storm-ridden weekday there’s an audience for quality music in Glasgow.

Not her first time in Glasgow (she previously was here as a backing singer for Jimmy Eat World which she remembers primarily due to a beer swilling “taps aff” fan) Ms. Andrews’ appearance was keenly anticipated, many of the crowd seeming to be familiar with her latest release, Honest Life. Her set was short but compelling, her voice crystal clear, the songs lonesome reflections on life delivered perfectly. There was some tasty pedal steel accompaniment from Bryan Daste on several of the songs with Andrews’ guitar picking confident as displayed on the sublime delivery of Woman Of Many Colors (from her 2013 album On My Page). Rookie Dreaming and Table For One were somewhat sublime, the latter suffused with the loneliness of the long distance traveller and the song tonight that did recall the tundra like epistles of Joni Mitchell with whom Andrews has been often compared to. And while Andrews does court comparison with some sixties and seventies icons (I heard someone even say that in appearance tonight she looked a bit like Melanie) she has surely proved with Honest Life that she has moved on from such forebears,  the emotional heft of Not the End which tonight sliced through the venue proof indeed. There were similarly powerful performances as she sang Honest Life and Put The Fire Out, the audience in her hand and it was a pity that we were allotted such a short time in her company. Whispers are that Ms. Andrews will be returning in the not too distant future, if so be sure to catch her, she is a gem.

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Ah, The Handsome Family, the Morticia and Gomez Addams of Americana, a deliciously dark and twisted invite to visit an America peopled by freaks, mutant animals and fast food addicts getting their fix in lurid plastic palaces; they really have no equal. On record they continue to hone their audio alternative to David Lynch but live they open up with the songs punctuated by the superb (and achingly funny) repartee between Rennie and Brett, almost as if they were in a reality TV show featuring the battling Sparks family. Tonight, in-laws, depressing vacations and Brett’s mixture of lager and Lemsip (or Lemsick as Rennie renamed it) were running throughout the show, the pair bickering wonderfully. It was all hugely entertaining, at times rib tickling, but ultimately the repartee led into the songs which did not disappoint with a fine overview of their many albums including several from last year’s Unseen. They opened with the Gonzo reportage of Gold, a surreal tale of a robbery at their local Stop’n’Go (now closed) and the old favourite (and Christmas themed) Too Much Wine and then headed into the addled The Loneliness Of Magnets with Brett singing like Mel Torme on psilocybin, the song dedicated to an audience member’s birthday.

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The favourites came and went. Back In My Day, Weightless Again, Bottomless Hole, Tiny Tina, all delivered brilliantly, Brett’s deadpan baritone backed by the very fine band setting. Rennie on ukulele bass or autoharp, percussionist Jason Toth and a new family member, Alex McMahon on guitar, pedal steel and plastic organ along with Brett’s dynamic guitar delivered dark Gothic spells and toytown magic equally well. And of course they visited that nugget which allowed them their moment in the sun (surely anathema for such a crepuscular couple) with a fine delivery of Far From Any Road, chosen as the theme song for True Detectives some years back. As Brett said tonight he watched the TV and saw into the future, more people coming to their gigs. Fortunately they  have spurned the silver dollar and continue to purvey such eccentric songs as Octopus and Frogs, both delivered tonight and much more fun than listening to David Attenborough. The Handsome Family remain a singular delight and long may they do so.

 

The Handsome Family. Unseen. Loose Music.

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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.

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