A FIRSTHAND PRIMER TO THE HANDSOME FAMILY
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In the golden age of binge-worthy television, “True Detective” is an anomaly in that it might go down as one of the most voraciously piecemealed shows of the era. Practically every scene was deconstructed down to the frame on Reddit, its occult themes spawned a rolling wave of Internet thinkpieces week after week, and the overpowering sense of despair that made it such a hit was only exceeded by that which permeated the six days in between airings. Writing the theme song for such a phenomenon would see like pretty good work if you can get it, and its sinister overture “Far from Any Road” did indeed create a windfall for gothic Americana outfit the Handsome Family.
Before “True Detective”, the Handsome Family were a criminally unsung band with a modest, but dedicated following that included Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Tweedy and Andrew Bird. Now, they are a band experiencing a long-overdue swell of attention thanks to an unearthed, decadeold gem, but not without qualification.
That they are the band with the song from “True Detective” is going to be their billboard for the immediately foreseeable future. It’s essentially the tagline for their forthcoming show at the Blind Tiger on Tuesday, not that they have released 10 compelling records over the last two decades, or that Bird very recently paid loving tribute with an album of Handsome Family covers, but Rennie Sparks, primary lyricist of the Handsome Family, doesn’t see much downside to it.
When asked about alternative entry points into the Handsome Family catalog, it was 2003’s Singing Bones that she offered up, the same album that bore “Far from Any Road”, as the creative archetype for her and her husband Brett, the band’s primary composer. It’s an album of often devilishly simple folk-country tunes with vast inquests into the mysteries of life lying beneath the surface, but “The Bottomless Hole” in particular, Rennie says, is among her favorite representations of the Handsome Family. In 20 years, however, they’ve explored not just country and folk, but noise, rock, standards and the avantgarde.
On the song from Singing Bones you really need to hear “It’s really easy one for people to get into because it’s a really simply story, but it has a very inscrutable ending to it. You can take it as a literal story, or as a story about the nature of infinity and endlessness, she said. “It also references a lot of old folk songs, so I think that it’s a nice way learn about us because it references a little bit about everything we do.”
On the classic influence in “The Loneliness of Magnets” This was inspired by a great Tin Pan Alley song, and we’re in love with the standards of the ‘40s by Gershwin and Carmichael. We don’t consider ourselves just country songwriters, we just consider ourselves people who love songs. If you love songs in general, you’re as likely to gravitate towards country as you are folk or great standards. Tin Pan Alley was this great explosion of songwriting in America that I don’t think we’ve had since. There’s a little bit of Stephen Foster in there also. In “Beautiful Dreamer” he talks about meeting up with his lover in the vapor of dreams, and that idea of intangibility played into it as well.
On the disorienting mash of noise and country in “One Way Up” I really love that song. Brett doesn’t want to play it anymore, which makes me sad. It was written when he was a very confused youngster and had no way to know which way to go. He was alone in Chicago at the time, and that can really shake you up. It was written in that time period when there was a space between the really noisy hardcore bands and something new coming, which we didn’t know what that would be. We were grappling for sounds and found this.
On the outlier, “Prepared Piano #2” Brett’s getting more into the piano soon, so I’m looking forward to more like this. He used to spend hours putting screwdrivers and clothespins between the strings of pianos, and play them from underneath to get all of these interesting sounds. In a way, it’s an escape of the construct of piano itself. There are secret sounds that exist in the spaces between the notes that we know; you just have to figure out how to get to them.
On Andrew Bird’s favorite, “The Giant of Illinois” He’s given us a great gift. Some of those songs he’s played for us of ours, it’s almost like he gave them back to us. You play a song for a little while and it’s almost like you lose it a little, then to hear him play it, I remember what I was intrigued by in the beginning. He always hears way more than we hear and different ways of entering the same melody from different angles.
On the amazing guitar solo in “Frogs” The rock guitar solo is so underutilized and it’s almost always used in the same way. The sound of frogs singing is pretty magical to me and I somehow wanted to get close to that. They’re always competing with each other, which is kind of like shredding guitar, and Brett I felt really captured that.
The Handsome Family will perform at the Blind Tiger on Tuesday. !