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The Handsome Family: Through The Trees

review handsome x1 cong

This re-issue — it’s 20 years since The Handsome Family first released it — is bloody marvellous. Its basic sound could be 100 years old, a couple of (rather sinister) folks with beards and overalls making country music on a porch, but it’s got a modern feel and the lyrics are heartfelt; in fact, that’s the word — it’s got heart. It sounds ramshackle, but it’s obviously carefully written and arranged.

The epitome of the sound is possibly Down In The Ground: a stomping beat (literally, the percussion sounds like someone kicking a hollow tree), ponderous banjo and Rennie Sparks whining like an old crone as she sings: “Black cows are limping / the white dogs bark / Crickets are screaming / Smoke in the barn”.

The quality is high throughout. Opener Weightless Again is a loping country tune with gentle vocals. It begins: “We stopped for coffee in the Redwood forest / Giant dripping leaves, spoons of powdered cream / I wanted to kiss you, but I wasn’t sure how”, describing that weightless feeling of first love, before the next verse adds: “This is why people OD on pills / And jump from the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Closer My Ghost is about a bipolar man, opening with his pre-medication worldview: “My ghost drives around with a bag of dead fish / Falling neutrinos drift through the trees” then after medication — “I’m not going far till the Haldol kicks in” — he adds his more realistic view of the world: “I won’t get any cookies or tea / till I stop quoting Nietzsche / And brush my teeth and comb my hair.” The description of the madness makes it sound as bad as it is, but the alternative — normal life is brushing one’s teeth and combing one’s hair — hardly sounds worth getting sane for.

The album is packed with complex stories to counter the often simple music; I Fell, for example, is about a man whose love has gone. While lesser bands might cast around for “I’m blue/miss you” rhymes, The Handsome Family go for “a stream of orange lizards” pouring out of “the bone-white mouth” of a horse’s skull.

Inspired, creepy, off-kilter country.


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