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January 28th, 2004 Douglas Wolk | Music Stories
 

Cough Syrup Dreams

Welcome to the world of the Handsome Family, where the folk is dark, the lyrics are darker.

     
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"I could have sworn that The river of blood was right here." Rennie and Brett Sparks.
"We had this song, 'My Sister's Tiny Hands,' where one sister is bitten by a snake and the other goes and destroys the forest," the Handsome Family's Rennie Sparks says with a sigh. "I gave a copy of the CD to this one girl in my office, and she didn't give it back for a few days--she was very upset and confused by it. I had to sit down and try to explain to her that it was not real. It'd never occur to her that somebody would tell a story that wasn't true. People have forgotten what art means, on a basic level."

Her husband and bandmate, Brett Sparks, chimes in. "You know: 'art'? 'Artifice'? 'Artificial'?"

The Handsome Family's songs employ artifice constantly, using it to hit on subjects deeper and more moving than naturalism can reach. Filling their music with the dark uneasiness of dreams and old folk songs, the Handsome Family is obsessed with the idea of a secret world, another reality that brushes up against this one. On their eighth and latest album, Singing Bones, one of their narrators "had a wife and children / Good tires on my car," and has left them behind to explore a bottomless hole--"But until I hit the bottom/I won't believe it's bottomless."

Married for 15 years, Brett and Rennie moved from Chicago to Albuquerque a few years ago, and have been on the road most of the time since. She writes most of their elegant, blackly funny lyrics, and plays the autoharp, banjo and melodica; he writes the music, plays the other instruments and sings in the assured baritone of a '50s country star. On stage, they're usually a duo, accompanied by an iBook.

Despite the onstage technology, they're hardcore pre-modernists about songwriting--lyrics first--and painstaking about the craft. "The conscious part of the mind, the part that makes lists, is the stupid part, but it's hard to get to the right state," Rennie says. "I'm working on a novel, and when I first started working on it, I wrote maybe 400 pages that had to be thrown out before I got to the first good paragraph."

Rennie has already self-published Evil, a book of her twisted, minutely observed short stories. Her lyrics are like concentrated versions of her fiction, often boiling a story down to a few brutal details, as on "Weightless Again," from 1998's Through the Trees: "In our motel room you're drinking Slice and gin, reading Moby Dick on the other bed. Remember the first time we slept together? You said it felt like when you learned to float." She wishes more songwriters had her taste for narrative: "These days, people think they can just repeat the chorus a lot."

Brett leaps on the opportunity to bicker, which veterans of Handsome Family live shows know is their favorite sport: "Now that we have newspapers and CNN and stuff, we don't need to transmit news and ideas by way of songs any more."

"Well, Stephen Foster wasn't writing news stories, but everyone bought the sheet music and he was an icon."

"He was a money-grubber."

"He was not! "

"Most of his life, he survived off minstrels and ragtime. He just wanted to make money."

"Nobody writes 'Beautiful Dreamer' for money!"

The Sparkses dearly love old songs--they've covered the British ballad "The House Carpenter" and constantly mention Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music as a reference point. But the people who wrote even the bleakest folk and gospel songs that inform the Handsome Family's tone and style had the comforting idea of heaven to rely on; Rennie and Brett's songs share the gentle four-square melodies but substitute a bitter existentialist sting. ("It's gonna rain champagne and the hills are gonna dance/There will be power in the blood when that helicopter comes," they sing on 2000's In the Air--a secularized riff on an 1899 gospel song.)

The one thing Rennie says she does possibly believe in is Carl Jung's theory of the collective unconscious--discussion of which rapidly turns very weird. "I read about people taking cough medicine and getting in touch with the ancient reptilian brain," she says, "and I drank way too much Robitussin, and I had this horrible hallucination that I was in a river of blood, floating alongside green lizards. It was horrifying! It took me about half an hour to remember who I was. If I can stop just one person from taking too much Robitussin...."


The Handsome Family plays with the Buttless Chaps on Wednesday, Jan. 28, at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. 7 pm. Cover. 21+.

Handsome Family Website www.handsomefamily.com

 
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