Unlike the Ramones or even Darlington, the Handsome Family are actually a family. The husband-and-wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks together write sinister, haunting country songs -- more Appalachia than Nashville, more Edgar Allan Poe than cheatin' heart/tears in my beer tales. Though the band is generally thrown into the alternative country genre with the likes of Wilco and Whiskeytown, album by album from 1995's Odessa to the new In the Air (all released on Chicago's Carrot Top Records), the Handsome Family has gone from the open road into the dark woods, where they find drunken tantrums and helicopters, brokenhearted girls carried away by crows, milkmen in love with the moon, and men who kill their brothers and brides, leaving their bodies lying in the warm, sunny fields among heather and black ants. Rennie writes lyrics full of nightmares, twisted childhood memories, and folk tales. They're macabre little stories with a-wink-and-a-smile humor, like Edward Gorey with a Woody Guthrie infatuation, or vice versa.
And even the ones that don't hint at a personal experience are never detached from passion or lack for imagery. She begins "Lie Down" with the line, "Tuesday at dawn Michael's glasses washed ashore with a Styrofoam box and two broken oars." Though Rennie writes the lyrics, she mainly supports Brett, who illustrates her tales with his deep, sometimes husky, occasionally choirboy-like voice and his melodic instrumentals. He has left the traditional guitar-bass-drums setup of Odessa and 1996's Milk & Scissors (when the Handsome Family also included drummer Mike Werner) to concentrate on guitars and vocals, accompanied by mandolin, autoharp, accordion, dobro, and percussion. A drum machine was used for 1998's Through the Trees, but for In the Air, Brett bangs on broken-down cymbals and snares and anything else within arm's reach, including a garbage can. Apparently, a kitchen sink wasn't available.
In the Air is the Handsome Family's most Americana album, though Brett recorded the tracks in the couple's living room in Chicago on a Macintosh G3. Who says traditional music can't also be progressive? But the Handsome Family isn't shtick, a forced front formed from pages ripped out of the Carter Family's song book. The Sparks combine urban, modern emotions with an old art form, making the sentiment sound as old as the hills and the music as fresh as red blood on newly fallen snow.