You’re against me. You’re all against me! You’ll never get my money! Or my Titanic necklace!
“Even when we couldn’t play our fucking instruments, and we sucked, and we were stupid live, we were entertaining — I’ll give you that,” Brett Sparks says, recalling the early days of the Handsome Family. Much of that entertainment value comes courtesy of Rennie Sparks, Brett’s partner in marriage and in music, who liberally sprinkles spontaneously combustible comments — such as the one quoted above — between songs throughout the band’s live shows.
In the beginning, such offbeat humor was also quite common in the band’s recorded material, but over the course of five years, the Handsome Family’s music has matured into something much more than a mere novelty-act soundtrack. Through The Trees, the Chicago band’s third album for Carrot Top Records, is a hauntingly melodic, finely wrought song cycle about love, nature, and mental instability.
The opening track, “Weightless Again”, seizes the listener’s attention from the first few bars. As a hypnotic keyboard riff repeats, Brett sings about suicide and the quest to achieve a transcendental feeling — that magic feeling of weightlessness. The second song, “My Sister’s Tiny Hands”, is rife with cinematic imagery, delivered in Brett’s gritty baritone: “The sunlight spread like honey through my sister’s tiny hands/But while picking sour apples in the wild waving grasses/Sister stumbled in a briar and was bitten by a snake/Every creature casts a shadow under the sun’s golden fingers/But when the sun sinks past the waving grass/Some shadows are dragged along.”
Many people have asked Rennie, who wrote the lyrics to that song, if she in fact had a twin sister, but the song is not autobiographical. “I don’t have a fucking clue why I wrote that song,” she says. “But I just know that I felt much better and less likely to jump in front of a train afterwards. It just made me feel better to write it.”
Brett explains that the Carter Family was the inspiration for the song’s melody. “Originally, I wanted the guitar part [to be] this total Maybelle thing, but I can’t do that kind of strumming; it’s too difficult,” Brett says, referring to Maybelle Carter’s trademark “scratch” style. “So I opted for the other thing they always do, which is to have the autoharp double the vocal. I wrote it around the same time that Rennie was playing ‘The Wildwood Flower’ over and over and over.”
Rennie is obsessed with the classic A.P. Carter tune. “That song is everything that I aspire to, because it’s so beautiful yet so sad and so this and so that and so everything — so sexual and so innocent and so dark and so light and so beautiful and so ugly. It’s all about people and human interaction, and it’s really all about nature, too.…A hundred years from now, you could listen to it and it’ll be the same.”
My psychiatrist recently said, “I’ve noticed you’re talking a lot about amputations and root cellars. Do those things have any special meaning for you?”
A cow skull, landscape paintings, a huge bowl of vitamins, exercise equipment, a pyramid of bizarre canned dog food, a collection of sealed novelty toys, hundreds of books, a piano, several guitars, other musical instruments — and a life-size plastic deer. Walking into the Chicago loft shared by Brett and Rennie Sparks, one can’t help but look around. Like the band’s albums and live performances, the loft is chock-full of country charm combined with an urban sensibility.
Among the musical instruments is a Yamaha sequencer with more than 500 sounds programmed in it. Since early 1997, when drummer Mike Werner quit the band, the duo has performed with a mini-disc player providing percussion and other accompaniment. Brett has fully embraced his techno-geekdom, beaming about how the sequencer is the size of a videocassette and can be used in a car with a cigarette lighter adapter. The band’s prerecorded tracks start out as simply percussion; then he and Rennie add other layers, such as horns, bells, even chirping frogs. Brett does set some limits, though: “I don’t ever want to put real vocals on the backing track. That’s too Milli Vanilli.”
Using prerecorded backing tracks in their concerts — a practice once used with considerable success by another husband-wife duo, Timbuk3, in the mid-1980s — allows Rennie, who usually plays bass, to explore other instruments, such as keyboards and autoharp. It also means Brett is not confined to the guitar, so he’ll occasionally play his six-string Czech banjo or a washboard. The juxtaposition of prerecorded percussion with old-time instruments makes for fascinating contrasts: It’s not often you see a rocker playing an autoharp or a washboard, and when you do, they’re usually not strumming to a computerized drum loop.
The turn toward synthesized accompaniment has significantly changed the band in the studio as well. Through The Trees is a step up for the Handsome Family in terms of audio quality: The band is lo-fi no more. Part of the credit for the improved sound goes to longtime Handsome Family fan and supporter Jeff Tweedy. The Wilco frontman was at the Sparks’ loft last year and noticed they had rented a DAT machine. He offered to let them use his digital recording equipment while Wilco went on tour with Sheryl Crow. The basic tracks were recorded with Tweedy’s equipment, and then, using ProTools software, were dropped into producer Dave Trumfio’s computer for remixing.
Trumfio is the lead singer for the new-wavish Pulsars and has produced tracks for the Mekons. He knows very little about alternative country, which was a blessing; Brett and Rennie felt his unfamiliarity with the genre allowed him to approach their music with a fresh perspective. Trumfio’s previous production credits, meanwhile, gave him knowledge of subtle little tricks that helped enhance the music. “Dave has so much studio experience that he knows, for example, if you add a tambourine to the first beat of every measure on top of a drum machine, it will soften the mechanical sound and make it sound like a real kit,” Brett said.
After Trumfio added organic percussion to the drum machine tracks, Brett and Rennie thought the record was finished. Around that time, as fate would have it, Wilco’s tour ended and Tweedy returned to Chicago. The Sparkses had given him a rough mix of the album, and Tweedy joked that he wanted to play triangle on a few tunes. He wound up contributing vocals to four songs and also added guitar on two of those. His subdued but expressive singing on “The Giant Of Illinois”, in particular, meshes nicely with Brett’s lead vocal. Of his guitar playing, Brett recalls with adulation: “Dave had an idea for a Luther Perkins-style guitar part for ‘Cathedrals’…but he couldn’t play it. And I couldn’t do it. So Jeff sat down and did it in one take.”
Shut up, Mr. Manic. Mr. Manic, Mr. Manic! Depressed people rule! He gets all the attention because he ate cat food. I could eat cat food. I could spend $5,000 at a White Hen.
The band’s current sound, sometimes dubbed “countronica,” has evolved dramatically over the years. Their 1994 debut, Odessa, is a distortion-drenched, sometimes silly affair, with an excessive emphasis on rhyme (one song mentions Magilla Gorilla and Phyllis Diller). The second album, 1996′s critically acclaimed Milk And Scissors, showed considerable growth, both musically and lyrically. While its themes are dark, there’s still some goofiness here and there. With the overtly spiritual EP Invisible Hands, released in 1997 on vinyl only, the band restrained its comic impulses, laying the foundation for the vision that crystallized on Through The Trees.