The Great Depression

Brett and Rennie Sparks--the husband and wife duo who record her lyrics and his music as The Handsome Family--often get accused of being depressing. Or dark, or morbid or macabre. Take your pick. They all lead to the same conclusion: Why can't they just write one happy song? "That's when I throw up my hands and say, 'C'mon, it's funny,'" Rennie says. "It's unbalanced when you have a song that's only sad or only funny. Life never feels that way for more than a second or two. And I try to make it feel like it feels to be alive. That's kind of the point of writing stuff is to try to figure out what it is that we're doing here and what it feels like. And people get worried about it. 'Is it OK to laugh at that song?' I mean, was it OK to have a show called Hogan's Heroes about World War II? These things happen because of human nature. That's how we kind of wrap our brains around things."

In the past, Rennie has processed the complexities of life by writing about Lenore, who is carried away by crows, the birds' black beaks tangled in her hair, lifting her above the ground, and a milkman in love with the moon who is pummeled by bottles and bricks thrown by passersby who don't understand his love. Brett takes these very short "short stories," wraps his warm baritone voice around them and adds instrumental layers as complex as some of Rennie's metaphors and as simple as a washboard and an acoustic guitar. While other bands write songs about love, love and, well, love, The Handsome Family has dwelled often in the shadows where everyday occurrences meet the unexplained. Death and fairy tale-like portrayals of animals and nature as almost otherworldly have been central themes in the duo's Carrot Top Records albums such as 1995's Odessa, 1996's Milk and Scissors, 1998's Through the Trees and 2000's In the Air. But as life in the urban sprawl of Chicago wore on Rennie, she began looking for the things that made life in the city bearable. Those things inhabit Twilight, The Handsome Family's fifth album, released last week on Carrot Top, along with the usual animals, death and nature.

"I started thinking of how things like streetlights sort of replace stars in my mind," Rennie says. "Because when you look up you can't see any stars in the city. But sometimes streetlights can be pretty. And little weird things like pigeons, that usually you say are icky, icky animals, but you sometimes get to the point where a pigeon can be beautiful just because they're the only birds you're going to see all day. So in a way I think it makes the everyday things more magical. I think they're like these primordial sort of images you carry around with you of the forest and the wild world or nature, even when you don't have any contact with it...I found pigeons and streetlights very sustaining at certain points in my life."

Twilight is also like the final chapter of a trilogy that began with Through the Trees and continued with In the Air. On the surface, Through the Trees focused on, as the title implies, the forest. Likewise, In the Air involved stories about the sky. Twilight, Rennie says, is about "where things disappear, about the little moments inside you" and "seeing more parking lots than you do trees. Seeing more domesticated animals than wild animals. Seeing more lights and TVs than stars."

That's not the case for Rennie and Brett anymore. Two months ago, the couple left Chicago--the city that had given them countless accolades as one of its best local bands and had served as a base camp between almost continuous tours--and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a town where, Rennie says, the Wild West still exists to some degree. There, the mountains and the clear sky are never out of sight, robbers still hold up banks, and bears occasionally come in from the mountains, break down doors of residential homes and devour little old ladies. It's also a place where Brett and Rennie can have a house with a back yard, their own slice of the nature often referenced in their songs. "Even birds in the bird feeder in my yard are really important when you haven't had that for a long time," Rennie says. "And then I've just been planting things, just these really simple things; they're almost suburban things you don't have in a city. You plant something in your yard and you put up a bird feeder. I'm just so happy to do that."

Now they're back on the road, touring the United States for a month before heading to Europe for another month of shows to support Twilight. "There are good and bad parts of touring," Rennie says. "It's really nice to drive a long way to an unknown city and know there are people waiting to see you. It's a really nice feeling, makes you feel like you're really doing something worthwhile. But, you know, you do feel like you're living the life of a truck driver, too. 'Cause, you know, it's just us and the truck drivers at the truck stops eating at Subway every day. It's not very glamorous."

In Europe, though, they're treated differently. Whether The Handsome Family sells out a venue or barely draws a baker's dozen, Rennie and Brett always get paid and have a place to stay. It's partially because of common hospitality. It's also because, especially in England and Ireland, the literary quality of their music is more appreciated. There folk tales and the murder ballads of yesteryear are still alive; they haven't been eclipsed by TV, movies and popular culture. "Especially in Ireland, they're very much into poetry and music and the two combined," Rennie says. "To them the most important thing that anybody could do is to write poetry and music. And then here it's like, 'Be a doctor or a lawyer.' So what we're doing over there seems even more important to people, which is really nice."

That combination of writing and music is key to The Handsome Family. Rennie pens the lyrics: tiny, rhyming stories that read like single moments, snapshots filled with stark images, cinematic drama and enough ambiguity to keep her audience intrigued. She had been writing fiction for years, and it just kept getting shorter and shorter. She and Brett had been married about five years before they tried collaborating together. Her only music experience was playing bassoon in the school symphonic orchestra; he had been in several bands ranging from metal to punk to rockabilly, but he had always played his own songs or covered ones by other people. Their roles in The Handsome Family are distinct most of the time. Once the lyrics are written, the direction of the song is in Brett's hands.

"It always surprises me how they end up," Rennie says. "And it's nice to think that you don't know everything about your own song. That there's some mystery to it. Like I don't really know what all of it means. That's a nice feeling. I like that usually I'll have some sort of melody in my head, and he'll do something completely different with it. It ends up being more interesting than either one of us would do on our own. And I don't think we'd keep doing it if it wasn't interesting to both of us."

Save for Rennie's backing vocals and Autoharp parts, Brett writes all the music. The result combines his rich voice, which is often compared to Johnny Cash, with music performed on guitars, keyboards, washboards, garbage cans, pots and pans and whatever else is lying around the house or he can create with a computer. The sound has been called alt-country, roots rock and trad (short for "traditional"). Whatever the label, The Handsome Family produces organic songs, sometimes sparse, other times constructed like symphonies with more sounds and parts than two ears can process in the three minutes it takes to listen. It's no surprise that Brett is classically trained, a self-proclaimed music nerd who thinks about things like instrument pairings. Instead, the real surprise is that The Handsome Family's albums, which sound warm, worn and lived in, are performed, recorded and mixed in the Sparks' living room on Brett's personal computer, modern technology used to create songs that sound like they belong on unscratched 78s by old-time country bands.

"I use a computer, a Mac G3 and ProTools software, which is kind of like the industry standard," Brett says. "And I use a variety of other mixers and analog stuff to go into the computer to kind of warm it all up. But I don't record the way most bands do in an artificial construction kind of thing. I record a demo into the computer and then stack stuff on top of it. Tons and tons of tracks that I'll just selectively delete or mute or bring up higher in the mix until I get something I like. And then I'll go back and just record everything at full fidelity. It's like putting a puzzle together instead of just sitting a band down and miking everything and banging out the basic tracks. It just seems like a really natural way to work for me. It just grew out of me doing four-track recording in my teens."

But the goal of The Handsome Family has never been to sound just like an almost forgotten country band or to write songs compared to what a musical by Edgar Allan Poe might sound like. Rennie writes her stories--oftentimes in her head as they drive from town to town on tour--to help make sense of a world where women drive their cars into frozen lakes, killing themselves and their kids, which is the story behind "The Snow White Diner," the opening track of Twilight. Brett takes these words, using his classical training to write songs played live by two people and a pre-recorded percussion track that are more complex than some quintets play. And they'll keep doing it as long as it interests them. It doesn't matter if the guys in Wilco like them (though they do) or if they get huge in Europe (they might).

"I just like purty sounds," Brett says, his Texas accent working its way into the conversation like a computer-produced oboe part in one of his songs. "Just little nice, little perfect objects. I'm getting old, you know. I used to like to make a lot of noise. I like to make something nice now. Something I can stand to listen to."

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Shannon Sutlief