IN THE PINES: Brett Sparks of Handsome Family, World Cafe Live, Last Night
BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE INQUIRER If Edgar Allan Poe had an alt-country band, it would sound a lot like the Handsome Family: Stark, forlorn, and plumbing the tawdry depths of the dark night of the soul with a verbal acuity far beyond most mortal men. Nevermind that the lyrics are written by Rennie Sparks, Handsome Family bassist/banjoist and wife of Handsome Family singer/guitarist Brett Sparks, who lends Rennie’s darkside narratives a Mount Rushmore gravitas with his deep, resonant baritone. Uncommonly good lyrics is what separates Handsome Family from the rest of the No Depression pack — consider this chorus to “So Much Wine”: “Listen to me, Butterfly, there’s only so much wine you can drink in one life and it will never be enough to save you from the bottom of your glass.”
Rennie’s gallows humor was in full-effect Thursday night at the World Cafe Live, introducing selections spanning the band’s eight albums of gothic Americana with her trademark bleak glibness: “In this song, insects and animals do get hurt, but it has a happy ending,” “This is a dark, dark song about milk,” and “This song is about the end of the world, feel free to sing along.” Meanwhile, Brett who, as Rennie pointed out, looks uncannily like a young Colonel Sanders, plucked deep, dark, dulcet twang from an acoustic guitar wired to an amp the size of a lunchbox, while his brother kept time behind him. Working through their rich, sparely-orchestrated songbook front to back and back again, the couple arrived at a new song called “Tesla’s Hotel Room,” a tribute to the true inventor of radio, who also, according to Rennie, “invented a phone that let you call the dead.” Tesla never got the credit he deserved in his lifetime, and judging from the sparse crowd at World Cafe Live, the Handsome Family suffer from a similar neglect. No matter, time will give them their due. After all, the future is always kinder to genius than the present.